Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Titanic: The Musical at Southwark Playhouse

Like a lot of people, I have a huge fascination with all things Titanic-related. Just last year, in fact, right before I went on a cruise myself, I made the sensible decision to read Titanic Survivor: The Memoir of Violet Jessop Stewardess. There's something about the story of it's fateful maiden voyage that still strikes fear and sadness into the heart of us even 101 years since it sank in the North Atlantic after striking an iceberg, taking with it over 1,500 poor souls.
These days when you mention Titanic, the first thing that people seem to think of is the 1997 Leonardo DiCaprio/ Kate Winslet epic and James Cameron's cringey Oscar speech in which he declared himself, like Jack does in the movie, "the king of the world." Personally, I'm not a huge fan of the film. I enjoyed it as a piece of throw-away Hollywood indulgence for sure, but I couldn't shake the feeling that it was a bit crass to reduce such a terrible human tragedy to a sappy, sentimental love story. Probably an unpopular opinion but that's how I feel.
Last year's ITV mini-series by Julian Fellowes was a little more broad and managed to incorporate a bit more of the real stories of some of the victims and survivors, but still relied too heavily on clunky love stories and artistic licence for my liking.
For my part, the most respectful, historically accurate and least sensationally exploitative drama about the Titanic tragedy is the 1958 British production, A Night to Remember, which benefited from having Titanic's fourth officer Joseph Boxhall serve as a technical advisor and from the testimony of still-living survivors.
So having established my penchant for all things Titanic, you can imagine how intrigued I was when I first heard that Southwark Playhouse were putting on a six week run of Titanic: The Musical.
Written by Peter Stone and with music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, the show debuted on Broadway in 1997 and went on to win five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. For some inexplicable reason it never made it to London's West End although there were a few small runs in York, Stevenage and Bromley, as well as in Wales, Belfast and the Republic of Ireland in the coming years. Whilst Southwark Playhouse is still not quite Shaftesbury Avenue, there are murmurings of an imminent (and long overdue) West End transfer and deservedly so.
You might think that Titanic is a somewhat sensitive subject for a big belting musical, but the beautifully touching lyrics are the saving grace of what could have been a huge misfire. Just listen to this example:

The show opens first with a scene that takes place immediately after Titanic's sinking. The villainous Ismay, the White Star Line's chairman, arrives back on dry land and is greeted by cries of "Murderer!" from the angry relatives of those lost at sea. The action then goes back to the day the ship set sail and sees the characters embarking on what they expect to be a trip of a lifetime. I will confess to having a tear in my eye when the assembled passengers and crew were stood on deck singing 'Godspeed Titanic,' little suspecting the disaster that lay ahead. In a humorous touch, one man arrives late after the ship has already set sail and bemoans his misfortune saying, "Just my luck. Story of my life."
Over the course of events we get to know and care for an abundance of characters from diverse backgrounds. There's Captain Smith, who was persuaded to see Titanic through her maiden voyage just before his planned retirement; Thomas Andrews, the architect who designed the ill-fated liner; Isidor Straus, the co-owner of the department store Macy's and his wife, Ida; the wealthy Caroline Neville, who has eloped with Charles Clarke, a man her father considers beneath her station; the wannabe social-climber Alice Beane and her husband Edgar; young Harold Bride the wireless officer; and three young Irish women all named Kate who are travelling in third class and looking forward to a new life in America.
I really can't stress enough just how brilliant the cast of Titanic: The Musical are. Their vocals are second to none and their performances splendidly observed. It's worth noting too that almost all of them play multiple roles, which is no mean feat. (The repeated costume changes backstage must be a scene of total chaos).
My second teary moment came when the three Kates and the third class passengers sang the song 'Lady's Maid,' a number in which they reveal what they hope to do when they reach the promised land of New York. "It's better in America," they repeatedly exclaim.

Andrews at his desk, going over the designs for Titanic.
It's truly impossible to single out any one star in this production but my favourite moments came first from Ismay (Simon Green), Andrews (Greg Castiglioni) and Captain Smith (Philip Rahm) when they angrily point the finger at each other during a song appropriately called, 'The Blame,' and later from Isidor (Dudley Rogers) and Ida Straus (Judith Street) in two heartbreaking scenes.
As anyone who has seen Cameron's Titanic will know, Isidor and Ida are offered a place in a lifeboat but Isidor refuses to leave the ship when there are still so many young people, women and children aboard. Ida, in turn, refuses to leave the ship without Isidor. The two retire to their cabin where a short while later, Etches, a first-class steward, offers them a bottle of champagne. "Why? To celebrate?" they ask, wryly. After Etches bids them a sad farewell, "It's been a pleasure serving you both," the Strauses reminisce about their lives together and sing the hugely emotional song, 'Still.' This may just have been my third something-in-my-eye moment of the evening.
Obviously, we are all aware of the watery grave that awaited Titanic and so many of it's passengers and crew on that freezing cold night in April 1912, but I won't spoil the individual fates of those depicted in Titanic: The Musical (minus the Strauses who surely everyone is aware of anyway). However, I must make a special mention of the poignant tribute after the show's final curtain. Once the actors have left the stage, the musicians continue to play and a list of names of all Titanic's victims is projected onto the floor and scrolls for what feels like several minutes in order to pay tribute to each and every one of the lives lost.

This show is truly an utter triumph and I, for one, would love to see it receive a West End transfer. My only hope is that the cast get to go with it if/ when that happens.

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