Phil saw this the day after The Deep Blue Sea. What are the chances?
Launched on Broadway in 1997 (the same year as that film) the musical Titanic sounded like one of those shows that if it had ended in disaster it would have been morbidly appropriate. Despite huge technical problems during previews – and, if you believe Wikipedia, a model ship onstage that wouldn’t sink – and largely negative reviews it went on to play 804 performances (that’s longer than West Side Story‘s original Broadway run for goodness sake!) and win 5 Tony awards including Best Musical.
Thankfully the show did make it across the Atlantic. Eventually. Speed isn’t everything as the story grimly points out. This production by the prolific new Artistic Director of the Charing Cross Theatre, Thom Southerland (3 upcoming musicals directed him advertised in the programme) with Musical Stager Cressida Carre, premiered at the Southwark Playhouse in 2013 and now reaches the West End via Japan and Toronto.
You’d think, with a story so familiar, there couldn’t be many real surprises in the show. Despite this Southerland manages to ratchet up a surprising amount of tension and foreboding. Peter Stone‘s book contains some Downton-esque benefits of hindsight, sometimes chilling; the Captain (Philip Rham, very good) remarks, “Thank God I won’t be around to see it” long before he knows his fate. Constant remarks about the dropping temperatures (just in case we’d forgotten an iceberg is on its way) were a bit hard to stomach in the clammily warm Charing Cross auditorium.
Initially Phil feared the whole show was going to be sung-through, though an opening number as the liner is being loaded “Forty-six thousand tons of steel, Eleven stories high!” will satisfy anyone who finds statistics fascinating. And you have to admire any lyricist brave enough to have the ship’s coordinates sung or grapple with, “122,000 pounds of meat, poultry and fish”, “7,000 heads of fresh lettuce” and “40 tons of potatoes, 1,100 pounds of marmalade”. Followed swiftly by the Whinger-box-ticker “37,000 bottles of wine, beer and spirits”.
The book handles the enormity of the events by concentrating on the lives of individuals – based on real crew and passengers – across the three class levels. It must be a frenzy of costume changing backstage with the cast doubling and trebling up on characters. That they manage to make some memorable individuals is something of a miracle. The understudying logistics must be a nightmare.
Maury Yeston‘s (Nine, Grand Hotel) music may not be hugely catchy but it’s often powerful and covers a variety of styles from choral to ragtime, a bit of crooning and a boiler stoker’s song with hints of Sondheim. They are rousingly performed with lyrics you can actually hear against the terrific 6 person band and by a cast who are never better than in their splendid ensemble harmonising. Phil, unusually, found himself choking back a touch of appropriate moistness a mere 15 minutes into the show as the thrilling “Godspeed Titanic” saw the ship depart sending two-thirds of the 2,224 passengers and crew off to their deaths. What chance for him at the finale?
Everyone in the cast is good, so we’ll just single out a handful to create some inter-cast tension; James Gant as the toffs’ steward, David Bardsley as the arrogant, distinctly hiss-able cruise line director Ismay, Matthew Crowe as the delicate ship’s telegrapher “romance and telegraphy don’t mix”, Niall Sheehy who must be constantly rubbing on the grime for the engine room then dinner jacketing-up for First Class, Rob Houchen as the lookout who spots disaster looming, Helena Blackman does good posh and Claire Machin desperately aspirational to rub with the nobs.
We must also doff our caps to Sion Lloyd as the ship’s designer Andrews, who has to sing about “watertight compartments” and “bulkheads” as he redesigns the vessel while it slips beneath the waves.
Of course the iceberg looms just before the interval, sending us off to the bar avoiding drinks that require ice. The second half creates a perfectly good impression of the chaos without being chaotic. David Woodhead’s simple but effective two-tier set adapts well to the various on-board locations, showing us everything from the Third Class locked below deck to the half-empty lifeboat loading and the upending of the Titanic.
The theatre’s balcony fits perfectly with the nautical theme as though it’s an extension of the design and the excellent lighting (Howard Hudson) and sound (Andrew Johnson) add to the atmosphere. Even the Charing Cross trains rumbling overhead enhance the mood. There’s a big cast of 20 and a lot of costumes. You do wonder about the economies of the enterprise in such a small venue, especially (on the night we attended), with a half full auditorium.
Titanic deserves to be a hit. The venue should be full. Just as those lifeboats should have been.