Feb 22 2017 | By More

★★★★☆    Huge

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.

Steerage Ensemble. Photo: Scott Parker Studio copy

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.

epic feel

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.

A scene from Titanic. Photo: Scott Parker Studio

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.

Second class passengers Ensemble. Photo: Scott Parker Studio

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
Tickets: http://www.edtheatres.com/titanic
SLO website: http://www.southernlightopera.co.uk/
Facebook: SouthernLightOpera

Ensemble 4 Photo Scott Parker Studio


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  1. Cameron says:

    Having watched the performance I feel credit must be given to the the cast for coping with the technical problems they faced.

    Many characters were left delivering lines in the dark with what I can only presume was missed lighting cues and several left shouting lines due to microphones failing or not being put on a the right times! Often the orchestra drowned out singing and at times where many characters sang at once only the most strongest voices were heard. Embarrassingly the same characters lines were missed such as Mrs Thayer and the audience were left wondering if she even had a microphone on!!

    I have to say the standard of both sound and lighting for this production is one which I can only describe as mediocre at best! I did wonder if it is partially due to the size of the venue and being too complexed for the companies involved. However, I have seen other amateur companies such as The Bohemians’ Legally Blonde managing to deliver far better technical results in this theatre. Also, having just seen Limelights’ production of Priscilla in the Alhambra there was another example of an amateur company delivering west end standard sound and lighting in a similar sized venue, so it is possible.

    I think the company coped considerably well despite this and I can only hope the production team are able to spend time seeing how other companies manage to get the technical aspects right before being hindered in their next production.