TITANIC – The Musical
Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 4th June, 2018
This story about belief in the infallibility of technology is delayed by a technical hitch, sort of foreshadowing what is to befall the ill-fated ‘unsinkable’ ship – although there can’t be a soul in the house who doesn’t know the story; it is a disaster branded in the public imagination and therefore, any retelling is flooded with dramatic irony. The audience knows what’s coming but the crew and passengers do not, and so it is the job of the script to try to engage us with the lives of individuals before the main event disrupts everything. And here – and only here – is where this musical adaptation is scuppered. It’s a safe bet that the women (and children) are likely to survive; their husbands, beaux, fathers etc, not so much. There are too many characters and too little time for us to be manipulated into caring about any of them very much, given that we know they have a date with an iceberg, and there is very little opportunity for characters to develop and endear them to us. Lines like “I believe this will be my final voyage” clang like dropped anchors.
But it’s very well presented. David Woodhead’s riveted steel proscenium frames a simple set with an upper and lower deck and a movable set of stairs, while his fabulous Edwardian costumes evoke the sense of period. Maury Yeston’s music and lyrics are Sondheimesque in tone and effect (I mean that as a compliment, of course), giving the cast, individuals and chorus alike, plenty of opportunity to belt their hearts out. Director Thom Southerland tackles the wrecking of the ship with simple, stylised staging, enough to tease the imagination – we don’t even see the lifeboats, let alone the iceberg, but where the show has greatest impact is where the survivors stand before a role call of all those who perished, the lettering too small to be read, because those lost souls are, after all, unknowable.
Among the large cast several stand-out performances arise: Simon Green’s arrogant, hubristic J Bruce Ismay; Greg Costiglioni’s passionate Mr Andrews; Claire Machin’s social-climbing Alice; Lewis Cornay’s appealing Bell Boy and bandleader; and the mighty Niall Sheehy as Fred the boilerman. Sheehy is set up as the hero of the piece and sings like one – but of course, poor Fred is no superman, and his sacrifice is almost understated.
Others have their moments: Judith Street and Dudley Rogers as the elderly Mr and Mrs Straus have a touching scene, deciding to face their fates together; Captain Smith (Philip Rham), Mr Ismay and Mr Andrews have a great scene in which they lash out, each blaming the others for the shipwreck. A trio of girls, introduced as the Three Kates, show promise but only one (Victoria Serra) gets any real stage time – and makes the most of it.
By the end, I’m wondering if musical theatre was the way to go. Perhaps a docu-drama style would have been more appropriate in bringing home the scale of the enterprise and the enormity of its loss. And should a disaster – any disaster – be the basis of a piece of entertainment? As it is, this Titanic is great on the ears, but leaves the heartstrings of this reviewer unplucked.