THE LAST SHIP
New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Monday 16th April, 2018
I am conscious throughout the performance that just three feet away from me, seated across the aisle, is the show’s lyricist and composer, namely Sting himself. The Sting, formerly of The Police. He who used to dream about blue turtles. Yes, him! It was all I could do not to fan-girl all over him (Don’t sit so close to me). Is he aware of me and the intermittent jottings I make in my little notebook, or is he too wrapped up in his baby, watching his show come to life on the stage? The latter, I suspect.
This new musical – and it is new, rather than a jukebox effort, cobbling together Sting’s back catalogue – tells the story of the closure of a shipyard in the North East (from where Sting hails) and the drastic action taken by the workers and the community to have a say in the outcome. There is also the love story of Gideon and Meg – he escaped a life shipbuilding and joined the navy instead, but now he’s back, seventeen years later, to see to his late father’s effects, and discovers Meg has a surprise for him, in the shape of a daughter he knew nothing about. And so, the show’s book (this version by director Lorne Campbell) combines the political with the personal. The love story works itself out and is handled well, but it is the other story, the rising up of the people against oppression, that stirs and moves us.
The score is rich and melodic, clearly informed by folk music and even sea shanties, with the occasional ballad or show tune here and there. The choreography has more than a hint of clog-dancing to it. In terms of lyrics, there is copious use of a shipload of rhyming couplets but, this being Sting, there are intelligent rhymes, classical and even scientific references. The choral singing is beautiful, like a choir, swelling to fill the auditorium and get right inside you.
As the older Gideon, talented heartthrob Richard Fleeshman is easy on both eye and ear – in fact, some of his phrasing and intonation is very Sting-like. His younger incarnation is a passionate Matt Corner – although I find it difficult to believe there’s supposed to be 17 years between the two! Not that it matters. The mighty Joe McGann is foreman Jackie White, with an assured, authoritative air – his decline is a metaphor, just as the decline of the shipbuilding industry is a metaphor for what the government is doing to the country in the here and now. McGann is couple with Charlie Hardwick (Emmerdale’s Valerie Pollard) as his wife Peggy, who evolves from salt-of-the-earth supportive wife to firebrand at the barricades in the show’s most Les Mis moments. Great though Fleeshman, Corner, McGann and Hardwick are, the thoroughly excellent Frances McNamee’s Meg threatens to outshine them all. McNamee is spot on, from her sardonic bitterness at Gideon’s return to her emotional account of her teen pregnancy. Her duets with Fleeshman are definite highlights.
There is strong support from Katie Moore as Ellen, the surprise daughter, and Kevin Wathen’s Geordie Davey is so authentic he’s almost incomprehensible. Penelope Woodman’s evil Baroness, Thatcher except in name, is the unacceptable face and attitude of politics – unfortunately still prevalent today.
The set, by 59 Productions, impresses with its industrial features and video projections, with added atmosphere courtesy of Matt Daw’s murky lighting design.
Above all, it’s the music that touches us, that rouses us, that grips us, and so by the end when the call-to-arms is issued, and the show’s relevance is shown to be bang up-to-date, we are urged to stand against those who seek to take things from us (our NHS is one example). The Last Ship is a superb new musical with something to say that I can get on board with.