King’s Theatre: Tues 21 – Sat 24 Feb 2017
Review by Hugh Simpson
Epic in sweep, thoroughly musical and breathtakingly staged, Southern Light Opera’s Titanic The Musical has some real drawbacks but provides marvellous entertainment overall.
The production is ambitious to an almost ridiculous degree, featuring over 30 named roles, a total cast of over 80, an orchestra nearly 30-strong, and (spoiler alert) a shipwreck on stage; so much of it comes off, although the scale of the spectacle does overshadow much of the human and political interest in the story.
Such titanic proportions, as well as the shadow of some film or other, make revival of the 1997 musical problematic. Maury Yeston’s music is far removed from the average modern stage fare; his stated aim was to echo the English classical tradition of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, who are clearly evoked at times – although often the result is closer to Gilbert and Sullivan.
Unfortunately the wit of G&S is definitely missing from the lyrics. Cliches abound, some of the words are decidedly prosaic, there is the odd song that is nothing but exposition, and there are many rhymes so clunky they sail dangerously close to the iceberg of parody.
Peter Stone’s book, meanwhile, takes every opportunity for heavy-handed dramatic irony, with White Star head honcho Ismay claiming he wants to make the unsinkable ship a ‘legend’, and greeting the news of the collision with the words ‘I don’t suppose it’s anything important’.
Ismay is well sung by Charles Leeson-Payne but, like Captain E.J. Smith (portrayed by David McBain with great authority) he develops little beyond a cartoonish buffoon. This is largely due to the huge number of featured roles – characters will come on, and just when they are getting into their stride and we are working out who they are, they disappear for forty minutes.
This helps in creating an epic feel, but it does make it correspondingly difficult to care about individuals. In all honesty, stories become lost, and much of the humanity with them. The use of huge numbers of names of the dead projected at the end does not diminish the feeling of detachment. It is surely a mistake in dramatic terms, for example, that of the couples potentially separated by the disaster, the only ones who have recently met (and whose story is correspondingly touching) both survive.
This parade of cameos and short scenes can make it seem like one of director Andy Johnston and MD David McFarlane’s Showcase productions – but one with unfamiliar, much less memorable tunes. It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that so many performers make their mark. Those playing the various couples are uniformly tuneful and appealing – Stephen Boyd and Judith Walker as a social climber and her long-suffering husband, Matt McDonagh and Anna Chidgey as an eloping pair, Nicole Graham and Padraic Hamrogue as Irish emigrants.
Keith Kilgore, as the ship’s designer Thomas Andrews, has a considerable presence, framing the story and coping admirably with some of the most bizarrely wordy lyrics. Craig Young, as stoker Frederick Barrett, puts the maximum of meaning and melody into his featured numbers, while Gary Gray’s chief steward Etches is a wonderfully judged performance, poised just right between comedy and pathos. Darren Johnson not only gives lookout Fleet a dignity but also fills admirably in as Third Officer Pitman after the recent tragic death of Mark Hewitt.
Best of all are David Mitchinson and Dorothy Johnstone as older couple the Strausses. Their duet on Still is thoroughly emotional; there may be a couple of wobbles but the circumstances in which the characters find themselves make this entirely appropriate. This number also benefits from simple and heartfelt lyrics rather than the overt would-be cleverness of other songs.
room to breathe
There is also a dance duet here that benefits from having room to breathe; while Louise Williamson’s choreography is subtle and clever, often the stage is just too crowded. One moment where the first-class passengers troop off to the lifeboats by performing a complicated snake across the stage and then seem to get stuck funnelling off is symbolic of this.
The musical also constantly stresses the class-based nature of the voyage, not least in the way that the richest were the most likely to survive in the (inadequate, and still not full) lifeboats. This message is somewhat obscured by the fact that there seem to be far more first class passengers than third class ones on this voyage, and certainly a great many more with identities and stage time.
There are nevertheless moments that truly hit home. Johnston knows just how to arrange the troops for maximum impact – the slower numbers, with least unnecessary movement, such as No Moon and Autumn at the end of the first act, have a genuine power. This is aided by the singing of the chorus, which is first rate.
Some of the set pieces such as the struggle to reach the lifeboats have a visceral realism. Effects such as the striking of the iceberg (provided by McFarlane’s exemplary orchestra), the way the listing ship is represented, and the final sinking, are done beautifully and really rather brilliantly. Excellent use is made of backdrops, and the way projection is handled could be a lesson to quite a few theatre companies.
The story may have been told more attractively and there are certainly musicals with more memorable tunes, but there is a wonderful musicality on display here, performed by a huge ensemble with an even huger heart.
Running time 2 hours 45 minutes including one interval
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ.
Tuesday 21 – Saturday 24 February 2017
Evenings 7.30 pm, Matinee Sat at 2.30 pm
SLO website: http://www.southernlightopera.co.uk/