After a less-than smooth sailing run on Broadway in 2014, The Last Ship has finally found it’s audience. Inspired by Sting’s 1991 concept album The Soul Cages and his own childhood experiences growing up in a shipyard in Northumberland, the musical is grounded in the rock-stars sense of nostalgia and sentimentality for his community.
Speaking at the Newcastle launch of the production, he said “I realised that I owed a debt to the community that I was brought up in” and that he wanted to give his people a voice. His songs are complimented by a brand-new book from Lorne Campbell and brought to life by 59 productions innovative set-design, which uses an array of mesmerising projections to place us everywhere from cathedrals to the depths of the ocean.
The result is an empowering musical that endorses working class values with heart. Sting’s first foray into musical theatre tells the story of a Tyneside working-class community, who unite in the face of the demise of the ship-building industry their town is built on. Having been told to cease construction on an almost completed ship- The Utopia, the townsfolk are made to choose between tearing apart their ship for scrap or loosing their jobs and lives in the shipyard.
The story centres on the life of a young man, Gideon Fletcher (played by the charming Richard Fleeshman), who chooses to embrace a life at sea rather than spend his life following in the footsteps of his father, a ship builder. He sets sail, leaving behind his young-love Meg, and returning 17 years later to find the shipyard in decline and an unforgiving Meg living with her 17-year old daughter, Ellie.
The heart and soul of this musical lies with its chorus, and their foot-stomping choral anthems about the realities of their lives (it takes a little while to tune into some gruff Tyneside accents, but you’ll get there eventually). The gusto that these characters bring to every number effortlessly embodies the frustration of the townsfolk in the face of poverty.
Peggy and Jackie White, an older couple who drive the strike-force against Freddy Newlands, the owner of the shipyard, are powerfully portrayed by Charlie Hardwick and Joe McGann. In a musical full of stirring showstoppers, their tender moments are scene-stealing.
While the romantic through-line between Meg and Gideon is far from the most interesting aspect of the show, it serves its purpose as a necessary arc that we’ve become so used to seeing in musicals. By the time Gideon returns to Wallsend, Meg (played by the feisty Frances McNamee) has chosen a life for herself far from what she dreamed of as a 17 year old girl. An emotional and touching monologue shared with her daughter Ellie (a firecracker performance by Katie Moore) about taking her life into her own hands to raise her daughter garnered a well-deserved round of applause from the audience.
Walking out of The Last Ship onto the docklands surrounding the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre adds a sense of something truly unique to this musical experience.
Between the rowsing songs and a closing speech that grounds the musical in the realities of the decline of working class conditions in today’s climate, The Last Ship garners a sense of originality and topicality. One simply can’t imagine this show hitting home with American audiences in the same way it would with the Irish and British. There is something undeniably relatable about these characters and their struggles- realities that we have been witnessing in Irish towns and communities for years. We’re no strangers to industrial decline and it’s effect on real, working-class people, and this musical doesn’t treat these problems lightly.
Walking out of The Last Ship onto the docklands surrounding the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre adds a sense of something truly unique to this musical experience. You’ll leave the theatre stomping your feet with empowerment. Don’t miss The Last Ship before it sets sail next week.
The Last Ship runs in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from June 4th- 9th. Book your tickets here.
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