Sting’s The Last Ship has docked in Birmingham on its maiden voyage around the UK following a critically acclaimed sell-out run at the Northern Stage in the show’s spiritual home, Newcastle.
The first thing that struck me about the production was the accents. Regional British accents. Aside from a handful of exceptions, it’s still rare for musical theatre to venture beyond into the waters of the North, the Midlands, Wales, and the like. Rarer still to venture there with an original work. More usually, musicals transport us to fantasy worlds or days of yore, and generally play it safe with adaptations of tried and tested books, films and TV shows.
Sting has done something far more bold and risky: a brand, new musical forged in the heart of the North East. It tells a very personal story, not only for Sting, but also for the community of his childhood in Wallsend.
The Last Ship tells the story of this community and the decline of its mainstay, the shipbuilding industry (the titular last ship being the final one on the slipway) through the eyes of Gideon Fletcher (Richard Fleeshman), a young man who fled the town and his sweetheart Meg (Frances McNamee), and Jackie White (Joe McGann), the shipyard foreman who has to find the strength and courage to rally his men in one last defiant act against those closing the yard and changing the town forever.
The whole show is dominated by Olivier Award winners Fifty Nine Productions’ incredible set design. It’s a clever mix of fixed scenery and background projection, the solid horizontal of a shipyard girder framed against the crashing waves and spray of the sea hitting the dock gates. The staging gives an impressive depth and height to the performances. It is uncluttered and minimalist but perfectly considered to evoke a real community, giving a genuine sense of place. It centres the sea, and the shipbuilding industry, at the heart of the show.
Sting’s soulful Tony award nominated music and lyrics are a salute to the courage and spirit of the community of his youth. Developed from his 1991 third studio album The Soul Cages, the numbers celebrate Wallsend and its people in the face of the relentless economising power of Whitehall (Penelope Woodman plays Baroness Tynedale, the immaculately coiffured face of Westminster, but we all know which handbag-wielding premier she’s channelling). There is an overpowering beauty in the anger, regret and pride of the songs, particularly the rousing, fist-pumping choral numbers.
Richard Fleeshman and Joe McGann are superb as our leading men. Fleeshman in particular has a brilliant voice, and it is moving to see the journey he takes Gideon on, from a teenager scared away by responsibility to a man making a final stand with his fellows. McGann too brings tremendous heart to Jackie’s search to find the strength to give his workers the leadership they need in their hour of crisis. Frances McNamee as Meg has an amazing voice, one of the best I have heard. She and Charlie Hardwick (who plays Jackie’s wife Peggy) give gutsy, powerful performances, brim full of pride and passion.
It was an absolute pleasure to see this show. It’s fantastic to see an original show inspired by a real place and real people, and it should resonate and inspire those towns where it tours to look at their own histories and the stories they could tell on the stage.
Review and interview - David Powell
The Last Ship runs until April 21st and you can buy tickets here