There’s always a bit of a temptation whenever creative works are produced centred around the story of RMS Titanic that they dwell too much on the iconography of the legendary ship but forget that this was a genuine tragedy that affected real people. 1517 men, women and children, in fact, who lost their lives. No such worries with Titanic The Musical whose welcome revival is touring the UK throughout 2023.
The ship’s epic proportions are beautifully conveyed by David Woodhead‘s set comprising a wall of metal plates and rivets endlessly stretching skywards. The passengers and crew gasp in wonder as they arrive and board, what the opening song In Every Age describes as, “at once a poem and the perfection of physical engineering”. But while composer Maury Yeston‘s Tony award-winning score acknowledges the sense of technological wonder about the ship, his main focus is firmly on the passengers and their stories.
It feels like a luxury befitting the White Star Line itself to have a cast of twenty-five performers on stage as part of a touring production. But Titanic The Musical wants to tell the stories from every part of this floating city. The ship’s passengers – based on true historical figures – are a perfect microcosm of society during the peak of the Industrial revolution. In Third Class are immigrants dreaming of a better life in America. The characters in Second Class are (literally) the new middle class who can afford new leisure pursuits such as travel. And in First are the millionaires and aristocrats of an age that is soon to become bygone.
It’s the love stories onboard that remind us constantly of the precious human cargo with their hopes and dreams. In steerage, Kate McGowen (Lucie-Mae Summer) is bold, outspoken and, reflecting women’s changing role in this society, is proactive in pursuing handsome fellow passenger Jim Farrell (an impressive stage debut from Chris Nevin). Married couple Edgar and Alice Beane epitomise the fluid, as-yet-defined place in the social order that Second Class occupy. While the much put-upon Edgar (played sympathetically by James Darch) is happy with his lot, his social-climbing wife (played with infectious, show-stopping gusto by Bree Smith) has eyes on a bigger prize and will stop at nothing to rub shoulders with those in First. Perhaps the most touching love affair comes from the elderly Ida and Isidor Straus (an endearing Valda Aviks and David Delve) whose lifelong love means they can’t do without each other, even for a minute.
Thom Southerland‘s masterful, precise direction means that you are never overwhelmed by such a large cast of characters, with scenes transitioning effortlessly between the classes and levels within the ship. For those who have never seen Titanic The Musical before, it may come as a surprise that there is no lead character. Maury Yeston’s demanding score requires everyone in the company to be on their A-game vocally. From solos, duets, quartets and huge ensemble numbers, to a person, the 25-strong cast are musically breathtaking.
The idea of making a musical out of the tragic events that occurred on the 14 and 15 April, 1912 might give rise to some incredulity but rest assured there is nothing cheesy or mawkish about this score. There is more than a little English choral influence to Yeston’s score. Shades of Vaughan Williams and Britten infuse the American composer’s work here. While it may not be the kind of musical you’ll go home humming the show tunes, there is no denying the absolute thrill of hearing this impressive cast perform stirring anthems as Godspeed Titanic or the increasingly nightmarish No Moon.
Some might find fault with the extensive running time of the first Act, but it allows the stories to breathe and offers some sliding-door moments where if only different choices had been made, the tragic outcome may have been different. Mentions, and then warnings, of ice begin to reoccur with increasing frequency – portentously raising the tension for the audience.
When the fateful incident finally occurs, the moment is lighting designer Howard Hudson‘s triumph. Throughout the show, his beautifully-evocative lighting designs have slickly transformed the set from the gently reflections of the waves on the deck to the fiery flames of the engine room with well-crafted ease. When the ship hits the iceberg in the thunderous finale, Hudson drenches first the stage then the audience with an absolutely blinding white light. It is a perfect, immersive coup de théâtre that is incredibly simple and ruthlessly effective.
The much-shorter second half really mines the human drama of the tragedy. The mounting sense of panic is wonderfully modulated as the realisation gradually dawns that the ship is sinking. Dialogue revealing that Titanic has 20 lifeboats but needs 54 to save everyone onboard hits like a punch. Graham Bickley‘s Captain Smith offers the perfect mix of duty and heartbreak. Having never even seen a shipwreck in his long career, he gives a nuanced performance of a man breaking as much as his ship. First Officer William McMaster Murdoch (a harrowing performance by Billy Roberts) raises the emotional stakes as he assumes the blame, believing if he steered straight into the iceberg rather than around it, the ship wouldn’t be sinking.
The show systematically piles heartbreak upon heartbreak as the characters we’ve got to know and enjoy are forced to make the worst sacrifices. Kudos to Barnaby Hughes‘ depiction of first class steward Henry Etches. Such is his meticulous character portrayal of the perfect professional steward who refuses to desert the passengers in his charge, as well as the soaring purity of his voice in his solo To Be A Captain, his demise feels unbearable. It is simply an outstanding performance.
What is outstanding about this production of Titanic The Musical is how it marries the drama and intensity of the ship’s final moments with still ratcheting up the audience’s emotional response to the tragedy. Seeing the ensemble divided into survivors and those who perished brings home the harrowing reality of what happened. Martin Allanson plays the director of the White Star Line, J Bruce Ismay, with such cold self-entitlement, it feels impossible even to look at him standing among the survivors without a burning sense of injustice.
Titanic The Musical is not a typical musical. Maury Yeston’s music and lyrics are elegant and elegiac. It pays true respect to those who lost their lives in the tragedy. It’s a grown-up musical that strikes that fine balance of offering entertaining and honest moments of joy and then putting you through the emotional ringer.
The costumes are beautiful. The staging is immaculate. The talented 25-strong cast would be hard to better. In short, this is a First Class production of Titanic The Musical not to be missed as it voyages around the UK.
The Recs reviewed Titanic The Musical at Churchill Theatre, Bromley
As good as it gets. A definitive production – ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Titanic The Musical Tour
Titanic The Musical is touring the UK stopping at Blackpool, Newcastle, Belfast, Southampton, Birmingham, Stoke-on-Trent, Norwich, Cardiff, Nottingham, High Wycombe, Hull, Truro, Cheltenham, Edinburgh, Dartford, Salford, Woking, Sheffield, Liverpool, Dublin and more...Book Tickets