The Last Ship, music and Lyrics by Sting, first took to the stage in Chicago in 2014, even after Tony nominations and Sting himself taking over one of the roles, its run on Broadway was short. This may have been due to the lack of understanding in the USA of the labour issues in the Wallsend, Merseyside shipyard or reportedly, because of problems with the original Book itself by John Logan and Brian Yorkey.
Sting's personal, political and passionate musical is now a new, reworked version which premiered in his hometown of Newcastle in 2018. This new version will not have the geographical issues of the earlier, due to its British audience who will understand it's 1980's references to the Miner's strike and Margaret Thatcher. Yet, I do not feel it fully develops the characters and misses the mark to engage the audience at times.
The story tells the tale of the community defiance of the Swan Hunter shipyard in Tyne and Wear, as the shipyard faces closure and the last ship, ironically named 'Utopia' lays unfinished. As Gideon Fletcher returns to find his childhood sweetheart Meg, after almost twenty years at sea he finds Meg has a daughter… his daughter. He also finds a community in demise, fighting as a group to keep their shipyard open. But it is the foreman Jackie White played by Joe McGann and his wife Peggy (understudy - Penelope Woodman) who are the real gritty heart of the story as tragedy strikes. The reworked Book by Lorne Campbell seems to work pretty well however, some of the themes told superbly in song lack the impact in dialogue. The cast was universally strong and the stand out performance of the night was unquestionable, Frances McNamee as Meg Dawson stole the show with her exquisite vocal. She was fierce, strong and sensitive and our empathy firmly lay with her. Her romantic counterpart, the charismatic Richard Fleeshman in the role of Gideon Fletcher gave a strong and believable performance and his intensity matched that of McNamee. Joe McGann brought a stoic dignity to the role Jackie White. A mention must go to the understudy Penelope Woodman for a flawless performance of Jackie's wife, Peggy. Woodman replaced Charlie Hardwick, who was ill, on the opening night at York Theatre Royal.
The strength of this show is definitely the vocal power of the ensemble. As a collective they created a rousing roar and a triumphant ode to community values and dignity with a fist-in-the-air of defiance. It should be noted that is a lengthy show of 3 hours including an interval and one wonders if this could be shortened as it does feel repetitious in places. There is however, a great diversity of music and Sting's song writing shows influences from Music Hall, Folk and dance. It is claimed that his inspiration came from his 1991 album, The Soul Cages and his own childhood experiences living near the docks.
The set and staging designs by Fifty Nine Productions are very effective and relevant, with iron gantries, girders and stairways adorning the stage backed by a cinematic projection backdrop that ranges from stain glass windows to moving ships. This keeps the audiences interest when the story stutters/drags at times. There was a technical issue on the night I saw the production and the start was delayed by 35 minutes.
The Last Ship's lack of definitive conclusion, renders the tale to one of human endeavour rather than historical storytelling and this is consolidated by the rousing final speeches of solidarity that span our past, present and future. But purposely and ultimately, the memory remains of the spirit of the people, a primordial yell in the face of austerity, a story that is both personal and universal. Parallels can be drawn with Lee Hall's 'Billy Elliott', as a fellow north easterner, both highlight the effects of 1980's Thatcherism but yet 'The Last Ship' seems to lack the sincerity and almost becomes slightly mocking and caricature rather than poignant. The narrative nature of the show also reminded me heavily of the conventions used in Willy Russell's 'Blood Brothers' yet lacked its emotive impact. Although, I feel the characters were underdeveloped in places the show was well received by the audience and I feel will do well on its UK Premier tour, fans of Sting will definitely enjoy this show.
Reviewer: Tracey Bell
Reviewed: 25th June 2018
North West End Rating: ★★★