Tuesday 1st May 2018 at The Grand Theatre and Opera House, Leeds.
You’ll see the word rousing used everywhere in relation to The Last Ship, and with very good reason; the musical is a celebration of northern pride and also a call to arms for all those working within dying industries. In what is clearly a warm tribute to the shipbuilding lifestyle and gritty perseverance of Newcastle, we’re presented with a stage filled with torment, romance, defiance and good humour as characters in Wallsend navigate the treacherous waters of shipyard closures and circling governmental sharks. Sting’s score is both the champagne used to bless this ship and the rudders working powerfully beneath the action playing out on deck so to speak. It’s rich with feeling and intensity but it’s also proudly diverse in style and vibrancy. This production is a variation on the one which played Broadway in 2014 and some of the plot points and music have changed, but what remains is a narrative full of heart and stoic souls ready to fight for their livelihoods and their place in the world.Gideon Fletcher (Richard Fleeshman) and Meg Dawson (Frances McNamee) are childhood sweethearts who are torn asunder by Gideon’s need to flee from the expectation that he too will join the ranks at the shipyard when he comes of age. Fleeshman and McNamee deliver both the drama and the lighter side of this dynamic well, and both give the production two of its most powerful voices. Fleeshman in particular impresses with a beautifully husky tone as well as rafter-ringing, effortless belting. Parisa Shahmir also shines vocally as the Young, naive Meg along with Matt Corner as the fiery Young Gideon. Meg’s daughter Ellen is played by the brilliant Katie Moore, who dances circles around everyone foolish enough to challenge her while Moore also offers us narration from the margins, contributing pure vocals to create some of the most gorgeous harmonies to be heard in The Last Ship. Joe McGann is a quiet, proud Jackie White – he leads the men at the yard through troubled waters but faces his own hardships privately. Peggy is Jackie’s dedicated and feisty wife with a heart of gold and a mischievous glint in her eye; Charlie Hardwick plays the role with great spirit and although her singing voice doesn’t rival the more powerful vocal performances in the piece, she delivers a great dramatic performance and impresses with her emotional delivery of the passionately flailing Show Some Respect. Casting is admittedly a little uneven, with a small few performances lacking the polish expected of a show of this scale, but it’s certainly an impressive cast overall.The Last Ship is undoubtedly a political piece, and it’s unapologetically so. The uppity proxy of Thatcher who arrives to the yard to deliver sentencing is the image of Thatcher herself. This walking symbol of northern heartbreak, Baroness Tynedale, is costumed perfectly by Molly Einchcomb while Penelope Woodman’s performance models diction and overall demeanour on Thatcher’s style very closely indeed. It allows for both comedy and political commentary on the travesty of the industrial closures in northern landscapes in the eighties and surrounding decades. But the script is also delicate in its portrayal of dedication between Jackie and Peggy and commendably rebellious in its depiction of Meg’s response to Gideon’s departure. There is of course copious evidence of northern charm, northern wit and northern gallantry; but the script goes further, throwing in Shakespearean lines and Greek mythology references to flip the bird to anyone underestimating the intelligence and cultural awareness of the northern menfolk. This shipyard sees a whole spectrum of good men, ranging from Jackie and his righteousness to Charlie Richmond’s Adrian Sanderson – an intellectual among simpler folk, to Joe Caffrey’s drunken Billy Thompson – a role played so hoarsely that the shredding of vocal chords is palpable. Female roles are also unusually powerful and pivotal even in close proximity to strong, roaring men; the script celebrates the good women doing more than simply standing by good men, creating a piece of theatre which is wholly relevant to both past and present.Lorne Campbell is both director and book writer, giving the piece great clarity when it comes to the often stylised approach to delivering narrative transitions. To begin, the whole company swell to fill the room with broad, powerful notes about the lifeblood of shipyards and they remain on stage as chorus to support the first few scenes. Artful direction sees the cast stamping, stomping, clapping and slapping in unison throughout, clutching their chests and thumping the air in their efforts to make beautiful defiant noise and force their opposers to act. Designs from 59 Productions see an almost bare set alive with projections, moving us from setting to setting with a flick of a switch. This makes for some impressive visuals of ship interiors and the final sequence takes shape as a virtual reality experience for us all. Screens are also a key feature of the designs for this production, masking set changes nicely as well as allowing for the beautiful layering of projections.The Last Ship is a truly beautiful piece of theatre shedding light on the personal stories behind political turmoil of the past. Designs are contemporary and versatile, impressively conjuring a ship or a church where there was a living room a second before – no set pieces needed. Yet while the stories told are important, refreshingly different and delivered with visual beauty, it remains Sting’s music and lyrics which crowns this show. The diversity of mellow folk song sounds, latino scores and the all-out roaring of impassioned, relentless people is glorious – If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor, August Winds, Island of Souls, So to Speak, When We Dance – I could go on and on when it comes to naming the best music of the production, which is always a good sign. The sound of the whole company during the most rousing numbers We’ve Got Now’t Else and The Last Ship stays with you long after you leave the auditorium and these whole cast musical interludes are by far my favourite thing about this production, giving the piece as a whole an auditory richness which many musicals only ever strive for. Hop aboard The Last Ship if you can!
The Last Ship is presented by Karl Sydow and Kathryn Schenker in association with Northern Stage. It will play at The Grand Theatre and Opera House, Leeds until May 5th 2018, when it will continue to tour the country. Tickets for Leeds can be found here, and tickets for the rest of the tour can be found here.