It must be something about boats. First, Show Boat sailed into London, a mesmerising triumph, and now, Titanic, Peter Stone and Maury Yeston’s glorious, sweeping epic, awash with great tunes and terrific performances, captained expertly by Thom Southerland, docks at the Charing Cross Theatre – another five star sensation.
There are those people who think that the musical form is simply inapt for some stories; that it is impossible for a mere musical to deal appropriately with complicated characters, motivations and narratives. Those people are, of course, entitled to their views but any Sondheim work, Les Miserables and Ragtime, and many more, seem clear evidence to the contrary.
Titanic is another example. It centres around the greatest shipping line disaster of all time, one that saw over 1500 lives lost in freezing waters, and features dozens of characters all of whom will never be the same again after embarking on the Titanic’s maiden voyage. It seems like the most unlikely subject for a musical.
Peter Stone (book) and Maury Yeston (music and lyrics), however, in a phenomenal marriage of lush, seductive music, haunting melody, beautifully drawn characters, crisp lyrics, and swift, fast-moving snapshots of the important, and some unimportant but quite lovely, moments from that fateful night in April 1912, created, in 1997, a work that made it seem like the subject was a blindingly obvious one for for musical.
The first fifteen minutes of their Titanic is utterly remarkable: soaring, passionate symphonic sounds, thrilling choral harmonies, frenzied passages which convey the sense of wonder and excitement at the sight of the launching of the greatest ship of its time, and a clear and compelling sense of adventure, dynamism and pride. There are few musicals which open with such dramatic and engulfing musicality.
Of course, this poses problems for anyone seeking to produce Titanic. The vocal demands are great and it is too easy for silly casting to cause the show to fall at the first hurdle. Now playing at the Charing Cross Theatre is Thom Southerland’s revival of his successful, award winning production of Titanic from 2013, which played at Southwark Playhouse and toured the world. Happily, this is a production where people are cast for their ability, especially their vocal ability, and, accordingly it does not fall at the first hurdle.
As an ensemble, the sound this company makes is as good as that made by just about any Opera chorus anywhere. All of the parts are clear, distinct, perfectly blended and unerringly accurate. Both In Every Age and Godspeed Titanic, the company attacks the music with full-bodied vigour; the result is both startling and exhilarating. And having made that remarkable impact, the company never looks back.
From a musical point of view, the work done in Southerland’s Titanic is better than most musicals playing in the West End. Full credit should go to Musical Supervisor Mark Aspinall and Musical Director Joanna Cichonska – the musicality and discipline on display here is exceptional. The support from the small band of strings, percussion and keyboards is impeccable too; they make sounds that suggest a greater number of instruments in play.
The only small niggle about the singing is that, at times, it is too loud. This may be a sound design issue, probably is, and no doubt will be rectified as the production powers through its season. The auditorium at Charing Cross Theatre is not the liveliest of acoustic spaces and this may account for loudness at times.
But, frankly, the cast are sufficiently talented to rely upon the quality and timbre of their voices more and their capacity for projection and volume less. Rob Houchen’s superb rendition of No Moon was testament to what these skilled performers can achieve – an achingly beautiful, plaintive ballad, delivered with pensive, calm assurance.
The epic nature of the tale of Titanic poses other technical problems too. How do you convey the sense of the size of the vessel? How do you carefully differentiate between the types of passengers in their different travel classes? How do you depict the iceberg, the collision, the panic and the inevitable sinking?
Southerland takes a different tack from that of the original Broadway production – he relies upon acting, sound effects, and a small, but elegant, set of stairways and decking, the latter masterfully created by set and costume designer David Woodhead. This solution is doubly wise: it suits the space at Charing Cross Theatre and, crucially, it permits the real strengths of Stone and Yeston’s work to take centre stage.
There is no drama in the fate of the Titanic; before the first note is sounded, everyone knows the ship is doomed. While this makes the effervescent joy and expectation evident in the opening numbers particularly poignant, it also means there are few grand dramatic stakes. The tension and thrills here comes from the journey, not the result. Who survives? Who is to blame? Who dies a hero and who dies a coward?
Southerland’s pared down physical production permits the epic human tragedy to be the entire focus of the spotlight. Of course, without an outstanding cast, this approach would be folly. Happily, Southerland has assembled a cracking ensemble – no stars, or perhaps more accurately, all stars. Each do everything necessary to make this a shining example of musical theatre at its best.
A myriad of characters are quickly established. Although there is a deal of doubling, there is never any question about whom is speaking or participating in a scene. Delineations are expertly achieved.
Cressida Carré’s musical staging provides an almost expressionistic spectrum at times (a good example occurs when the stokers are slaving under-deck to fuel the speeds the Captain requires) and this, together with all the precise well-drilled set change movements, establishes two immutables: a sense of ethereal beauty that reinforces the melancholic dream aspect of the experience; and a constant sense of movement which reflects life on the ship and its passage through the icy waters.
Some of the performers have been with the production since 2013, although not all are playing the roles they originally played. Siôn Lloyd Andrews, formerly Murdoch and now the angst-ridden creator of the vessel, Andrews, is superb. His voice is expressive and hearty and he charts the bliss and despair of the character very well.
Matthew Crowe is a revelation as Bride, the lonely, fussy, possibly gay, wireless technician. He has grown into the role in spectacular ways – the detail in every aspect of his performance is wonderful and he proves how important reacting to fellow actors actually is in live theatre. He is alive, compellingly, in every moment and his duet with Niall Sheehy’s Barrett, The Proposal/The Night Was Alive is a masterful highlight.
Scarlett Courtney returns as Kate Mullins, Philip Rham as Captain Smith, Shane McDaid as Jim Farrell, Victoria Serra as Kate McGowan and each has improved noticeably, Rham in particular; all surer, firmer, clearer, compelling. The twinkling double act of Judith Street and Dudley Rogers returns as the Strauss couple, old rich people who are young lovers at heart: the moment when they waltz together as the Titanic commences its watery descent is quite gorgeous.
However, the new cast members really elevate the standard, and bring the best and brightest work from those who have been on board for some time. Houchen is splendid in every part he plays and Sheehy is superb as the romantic, uneducated grafter with a sense of kindness and self-sacrifice that takes some beating. Sheehy’s Barrett is the character who touches everyone, with his beautiful soaring tenor, his awkward softness for his absent sweetheart, his bravery in helping the trapped third class passengers, and his self-sacrifice over the matter of rowing the lifeboat.
David Bardsley finds every nook and cranny of arrogance in Ismay, the worthless owner of the Titanic who drives everyone too hard and then runs for the hills when trouble descends. It’s a vile, splenetic turn and a welcome one. The contempt he induces when he appears in the lifeboat is a testament to how well he has played and sung the role.
The testing trio, The Blame, is very well handled by Bardsley, Rham and Lloyd; a cathartic moment with no resolution, just lingering, swelling guilt. Alistair Barron is ship-shape as Lightoller and he makes a fine duo with Scott Cripps’ Murdoch. Cripps handles the sequences after the iceberg collision with rare and fearless intensity, and it is impossible not to be greatly moved by his final determined response to the crisis.
Claire Machin brings a robust, fruity glory to the part of Alice Beane: her diction is impeccable, her comic timing delicious, her sense of class rivalry precise and her handling of the difficult patter song where she gossips about and introduces the major passengers is sheer delight. Peter Prentice holds his own against her formidable stage presence, and the shocking brutality of his call for hard liquor when the end is near underlines the tragedy in a natural way.
As Charles Clarke, the good-looking shop-keeper who dares to love above his station, Douglas Hansell is flawless; as the voyage starts the ecstasy of his impending marriage is clear, then his self-doubts rise up to imperil his happiness, then the iceberg and his desperation to get his adored Lady Caroline to safety. Hansell makes the character whole and vulnerable; the look of ashen despair as he loses his lover is as affecting as any other aspect of the production.
Helena Blackman works exceptionally well with Hansell, and their duet, I Give You My Hand is tender, superbly sung, their considerably radiant voices blending well. Blackman imbues Lady Caroline with grace and style, and a pure, uncompromising love for her Charles. She is an absolute joy to listen to and cuts a very fine figure in Woodhead’s costumes. As does Jessica Paul, whose fine voice and figure helps make the Three Kates the unqualified joy they are.
But the very best performances come from crew, not officers or passengers.
Luke George is exceptional as the Everyman Bellboy, representing the over fifty under fifteen year olds who all died when Titanic sank. George brings an effortless cheerfulness to every aspect of the part and maintains a sense of decorum and gravitas, because even at fifteen he knows his place and what is expected from him. There is some business with an orange that will haunt you long after the curtain falls.
George also doubles as Hartley, the crooner engaged to entertain the first class passengers. Both of his numbers, Doing The Latest Rag and Autumn are perfectly delivered, with a light, unerring voice of real quality and a smile that would melt granite. George, in both roles, personifies hope and joy – a very, very fine performance.
Holding everything together, central to key numbers such as What A Remarkable Age This Is, Wake Up! Wake Up!, Dressed In Your Pyjamas In The Grand Salon, and responsible for a quite beautiful rendition of To Be A Captain, James Gant is a fastidious, impeccable and quite wonderful Etches, the Mr Carson of the Titanic.
Everything about Gant’s Etches rings true: his language, his bearing, his sense of sharp authority, his rapport with the passengers, his skill with champagne, his encouragement of the junior staff, his loyalty to the Captain, his sense of honour. Gant draws a rich and detailed portrait of a man’s man from a world gone by; the moment when he discusses his marriage is devastating, because it is the one crack in the polished veneer of smooth, calm perfection. Another joyous, quite perfect performance.
Southerland employs a clever device towards the final stages – a huge cloth descends with the names of those whose lives were lost. It is somber and very affecting. Cast members whose characters did survive appear wrapped in grey blankets bearing the insignia of the Carparthia, the ship that might have saved them had they got Bride’s frantic wireless messages or heeded his S.O.S. alarms. Seeing Etches and Bride there, with the women who had safely got into lifeboats, was very affecting. A sincere and very theatrical moment of both relief and despair.
This is a tremendous revival of an underappreciated musical. It towers high, broad and grand – a ship of dreams indeed.
If you have any interest in understanding the power of musical theatre, rush to secure your tickets.