Stage Door Review 2019

The Last Ship

Feb 21, 2019

✭✭✭✭✩

music & lyrics by Sting, book by Lorne Campbell, directed by Lorne Campbell

David Mirvish, Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto

February 19-March 24, 2019

“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” (from Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1842)

Most people who go to the musical The Last Ship now playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre will likely be there to see the rock star Sting on stage. Yet, to enjoy the show more fully people should be aware of what it is not. It is not a written as a vehicle for Sting. Sting, who wrote the music and lyrics alone did not write The Last Ship for himself at all and only appeared in its Broadway run in 2014 to help out ticket sales. The Last Ship is also not a compilation musical made up of the greatest hits of The Police. Instead, Sting wrote it to reflect his growing up in Wallsend, a long-time shipbuilding town on the Tyne whose shipyard closed in 2007. This makes the musical earnest, reflective, nostalgic and political.

It is completely unlike a typical Broadway musical. There’s no glitz, cuteness, smarm, pizzazz, outrageousness or cheap laughs. Instead, the whole show is suffused with an atmosphere of the melancholy of a community and way of life coming to an end. The folk-tinged music is incredibly beautiful from first to last with choral writing that is especially gorgeous. This is not a musical for those in the mood for giddy escapism. Rather, if you are prepared for a contemplative work about how individuals and communities face change, you’ll find the music of The Last Ship invigorating and uplifting.

The background to The Last Ship is the decline of shipbuilding in a town that had always depended on it and where sons followed their father into the business. Although Wallsend had produced such ships as the RMS Mauritania, the RMS Carpathia and the HMS Victorious, by the 1980s the shipyard had become uncompetitive with yards in other countries. In 1986 at the start of The Last Ship the company that has ordered the nearly completed ship in the dry dock in Wallsend has just gone bankrupt and no one is willing to buy it. In 1977 an Act of Parliament nationalized more than fifteen shipbuilding companies into order to streamline production. However, in 1979 Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and gradually the shipbuilders’ assets were sold off to private companies until in 1988 the last shipyard in Newcastle was closed. This is the threat that the shipyard in the musical faces.

Against this background three personal stories play out. First is the story of Gideon Fletcher. As a 14-year-old (Barney Wilkinson), he does not want to follow in his father’s footsteps and go into the yard, but wants to escape. Escape, however, also means leaving his young girlfriend Meg (Jade Sophia Vertannes). Seventeen years later, now in the time frame of the musical, the older Gideon (Oliver Savile) returns and seeks out the older Meg (Frances McNamee), who now runs the local pub. Having never communicated with Meg all this time, he is shocked to discover that they have a 16-year-old daughter Ellen (Sophie Reid). Unsurprisingly, Meg now wants nothing to do with Gideon, who was so long out of her life.

Related to this story is one about the conflict between Ellen and Meg. Ellen has a rock band and has the chance for a make-or-break concert in London. Meg, though, does not want her to go for fear that she will never come back. Meanwhile, parallel to the shipbuilding crisis, and symbolic of it, is the story of the shipyard manager Jackie White (Sting), who delays seeing his doctor about his medical condition despite the urgings of his wife Peggy (Jackie Morrison), who is the shipyard nurse.

As is obvious there is no personal story that acts as a comic plot to contrast with the others. The general gloom and uncertainly surrounding the shipyard pervades everything. Especially insulting is the edict coming down from the shipyard owner Freddy Newlands (Sean Kearns) that not only is the present ship not to be finished, but it is to be scrapped and the materials sold off. The builders are outraged that they should have to undo their own work. But Newlands tells them he can, of course, call in people who specialize in scrapping and do them out of wages for even that type of work.

The main flaw in The Last Ship as a musical, one found in many musicals and operas written by singer-songwriters, is that the songs tend to be reflective and not just of present circumstances but of past events and of general problems of humankind. Beautifully written as the songs are they tend to stop the action rather than move it forward so that the whole show curiously lacks the drama and tension that you would think it should have given its various plots. Conflicts between characters take place primarily in the dialogue rather than in song. Nevertheless, slow-moving as the musical feels, it gradually gains a cumulative power that become quite forceful at the end.

Dealing as a it does with an entire community, the musical almost becomes a choral musical with a large number of songs for the entire company. In fact, the chorus joins in in fifteen of the musical’s 25 songs and reprises, and of the ten songs without chorus only three are solo numbers. The moving a cappella chorus “In the Morning” that begins the show sets the tone for the entire musical with its beauty, earnestness and spirituality and the mood lasts with minor variations until the haunting choral song “The Last Ship” that ends both Act 1 and Act 2.

The production in Toronto has no weak link in the cast. All sing with strong voices and act with detailed naturalism. Sting, now 67, is well cast as the ailing shipyard manager Jackie White. His voice is more weatherbeaten now but it is recognizably the voice that recorded so many classic hits in the 1980s and he still retains various characteristic habits of delivery. He leads several songs such as the angry “We’ve Got Nowt Else” and the melancholy “The Last Ship”, but in both cases he is eventually joined by the chorus. Sting’s role is not a star turn and there is no attempt from director Lorne Campbell to make it one. Sting’s willingness to work as part of an ensemble is a sign of community-oriented nature of the the whole work.

The lead romantic characters are Gideon Fletcher and Meg Dawson, but for the majority of the show the two are at odds with Meg understandably unwilling to recommence a relationship that Gideon broke off seventeen years ago, subsequently remaining incommunicado. Oliver Savile is a very attractive Gideon both in terms of his sympathetic acting and of his persuasive singing with his rich, high-lying voice and ability to float heavenly high notes. His two main songs, the ballad-like “When the Pugilist Learned to Dance” and “What Say You Meg?” are two of the best songs of the show with the second already sounding like a classic even after one hearing. 

Frances McNamee is an impressive Meg, emphasizing her defiance about maintaining her independence and her rigidity about keeping Ellen from repeating Gideon’s mistake. Yet she is able to suggest that love for both Gideon and Ellen underlies Meg’s actions. She has a powerful voice and amazing breath control. The song “If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor” requires what must be the longest-held note in a musical which she does without the slightest sign of strain.

As Peggy White, Jackie Morrison blends in so well with the rest of the company that one hardly notices her. Yet, as the situation at the shipyard worsens, her character increasingly comes to the fore first with a fine rendition of the nostalgic “Sail Away” and then at the end as the leader of the women banding against the shipyard owner in the courageous “Show Some Respect”. 

We first meet Sophie Reid as Ellen Dawson as the show’s narrator who introduces us to the time, place and concerns of the musical and then sums them up at the end. Key to any reconciliation between Gideon and Meg is Ellen’s attempts to get to know Gideon and understand why he left his girlfriend, not knowing she was pregnant, for so long. Ellen’s gradual overcoming of hostility to Gideon and his hapless attempts to be fatherly when the time for that has past is sensitively acted by Reid and Savile. Sting gives Ellen one of the three solo numbers in the piece, “All This Time” where Reid poignantly expresses Ellen’s emotions.

The musical gives individual traits to members of the chorus. There is the the bartender Mrs. Dees (the sharp-edged Orla Gormley) with her ironic sense of humour; the drunken but still capable foreman Davey (a gravel-voiced Kevin Wathen); Adrian, the workman and lover of classic literature (an impassioned Marc Akinfolarin) and the Margaret Thatcher stand-in of Baroness Tynedale (an icy, disdainful Annie Grace).

The design by 59 Productions at first suggests that the show is set entirely inside an empty dry dock. However, automated screens have been hidden in the steel beams of the industrial-looking set that roll down for a complex series of projections that take us inside characters’ houses, the pub and other locations. 59 Productions still commits the error of allowing moving projections when a performer is singing which always is a distraction. Yet, their use of this technique is more restrained than in most new Broadway shows. An especially good effect is lighting a character behind a dimmed projection to suggest that the character in front is looking beyond the walls around him into the past. This happens in the song “Dead Man’s Boots” when Gideon recalls why his younger self was impelled to leave his father (Sean Kearns) and sets up a touching scene where the older Gideon is able to sing with his younger self (Barney Wilkinson) and his now deceased father.

A contemplative musical with a clear socialist message is hardly the type of show that would do well on Broadway, and indeed it did not. The Last Ship now has a rewritten book by director Lorne Campbell to clarify the multiple storylines but its overall nature and message remain the same. Those not seeking the razzle-dazzle of escapism will realize that there are as many types of musical as there are types of mood. 

The Last Ship stand outs from the average musical by the concentrated seriousness of its purpose and naturalism of its dialogue. It also stands out from the average musical by the consistent elegance of its music. The Last Ship is a musical lovingly crafted to capture a major change in a community’s way of life and lovingly presented by a cast that cannot be bettered. When Gideon returns to Wallsend, Adrian greets him with the final line from Tennyson’s poem about Ulysses, who returned home after 20 years of war and wandering, his life’s impulse summed up as “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”. This is the impulse that Sting finds not just in Gideon but in the power of a community united by a common purpose against those who would destroy it. The Last Ship is an unusual musical that will make you more mindful of the world around you.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Sting as Jackie White and the ensemble; Sting as Jackie White; Frances McNamee as Meg and Oliver Savile as Gideon. © 2019 Cylla von Tiedemann.

For tickets, visit www.mirvish.com.