First things first: this is not a stage adaptation of a certain motion picture. It is not a love story. Nobody claims to be the ‘king of the world’, poses for a nude portrait or warbles ‘My Heart Will Go On’. I don’t mean to knock the film – I rather liked it – but this is something altogether different, and its original Broadway production pre-dates the release of the film.
There are some very rapid lyrics in Titanic The Musical that perhaps it is no wonder it works so well in a relatively smaller auditorium like the Charing Cross Theatre. It’s far from living room style acoustics in this production, but I think some of the more detailed narrative that features in some wordy musical numbers may have been missed in the larger London theatres (though I wouldn’t exactly be against a West End transfer). Of the various shows I’ve seen at the Charing Cross Theatre over the years, this is the first time that I’ve failed to notice in any way the infamous train rumblings that are usually heard during shows, given the theatre’s proximity to the Charing Cross railway station. I’m not sure how they’ve done it, but they have done it, and without raising the volume levels of this show too much for comfort. The venue and the production should be congratulated for it, as it genuinely helped me to concentrate on the show.
I had only just about managed to catch the 2013 run of this show at Southwark Playhouse, on the back of recommendations from fellow theatregoers, and I would have gone again had they not sold out. There, full use was made of the performance space available, such that from my front row vantage point there were actors belting out soaring melodies just inches away. With more of a traditional proscenium arch stage at Charing Cross Theatre, that level of intimacy was largely absent; I hasten to add this did not take anything away from a highly compelling performance from quite a large cast. The stage does, however, look very crowded when the full company is present.
This is a distinctly American musical, with poignancy but little subtlety: that this production lacks an elaborate set is effectively neither here nor there as almost everything that happens is so clearly announced. Whatever apparent deficiencies there are in set are more than compensated for in a strong and meaningful book (Peter Stone) and lyrics (Maury Yeston), which the audience pays attention to all the more as it works to imagine what the words said or sung are conveying at any given moment.
I have bemoaned before that too many modern productions have a storyline where everything is going oh-so-smoothly before a ‘critical incident’ happens that changes the show’s characters so fundamentally; I can hardly hold such predictability against this particular show. True, it verges on melodrama when the ‘critical incident’ occurs – but how could it not?
Nobody has been miscast in this musical. With that in mind, the standout performances came from Niall Sheehy, playing Barrett, a stoker, whose love for his fiancée back in England was as palpable as his frustration at certain orders from the Captain (Philip Rham); from Claire Machin as Alice Beane, a larger-than-life character with an extremely convincing and authentic folksy American accent (and some of us have already experienced her talents in the wonderful Memphis The Musical previously); and from Dudley Rogers and Judith Street as Isidor and Ida Straus, who stole the show in the closest thing a musical with a narrative of this nature comes to an ‘eleven o’clock number’, in “Still”. Inseparable to the end, even by the ‘women and children first’ rule, the lady would rather die with her husband than get on a lifeboat without him. It’s heart-wrenching and yet understandable, tragic yet relatable.
Elsewhere, Matthew Crowe as Bride, the radio operator, was rather charming in the first half and then discernibly distressed in the second, particularly as it fell to him to tell senior staff that no other ship would arrive to help in time. James Gant as Etches, the senior steward in charge of looking after the first class passengers, put across a similar ‘keep calm and carry on’ demeanour, calm and professional to his customers yet very nearly shaking like a leaf: a credible and incredible performance.
There’s substantial variation in the poignancy and power of musical numbers. I do not mean the show is unsteady or unfocused (it isn’t), but rather that it continues to run through a gamut of human emotions to the very last. Even in the face of disaster cheerfulness breaks through, though I mustn’t reveal too much by saying how. It does not ever sound like the cast outnumbers the orchestra by more than three to one; in fact, they are listed as a band in the programme but I’ve called them ‘the orchestra’ purely because they sound like one, led by musical director Joanna Cichonska. The larger ensemble numbers are more than done justice here, and as individual characters are gradually revealed, the show is thoroughly engrossing in the depth and range of personal stories – from the First Class passengers for whom money can buy anything but peace and happiness, to those in steerage dreaming the American dream.
I did wonder how they would display the names of the 1,517 people who died as victims of the Titanic’s sinking; at Southwark Playhouse a list scrolled through projected on the floor of the performance space, visible to all in the audience, after the curtain call. I will only go so far as to say it was done very differently here, but arguably it was even more touching.
The costumes are impressively as historically accurate as book, lyrics and music are (or at least, the styles of music) – the number of oranges, for example, mentioned as carried aboard Titanic’s maiden voyage is, I am reliably informed, correct according to White Star Line records. There are certain other details that remain debatable as different eyewitness accounts were sometimes very different, but the fact remains that some eyewitness testimony did bear witness to what we see and hear on stage. And, goodness me, the styles of music are as refined as the first class passengers, whilst giving voice to their less well-off counterparts, a disproportionate number of whom did not survive. It is in the humanity of those who just want to make a living for themselves that the show is most impactful.
This stripped back production has made a triumphant return to the London stage, and its two-and-a-half hour running time felt much, much shorter. Further, the balcony appears to have been repainted to match the set; and looking up from my seat in the stalls, the circle looks very much like the Titanic’s upper deck. The words ‘press night’ and ‘standing ovation’ do not usually appear together – but this exhilarating, magnificent and intense musical left me feeling I had seen a truly remarkable production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
In the final hour of 14 April 1912 the RMS Titanic, on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, collided with an iceberg and ‘the unsinkable ship’ slowly sank. It was one of the most tragic disasters of the 20th Century.1517 men, women and children lost their lives.
Based on actual characters aboard the greatest ship in the world, Maury Yeston (Nine, Grand Hotel) and Peter Stone’s stunning musical focuses on their hopes and aspirations. Unaware of the fate that awaits them, the Third Class immigrants dream of a better life in America, the newly-enfranchised Second Class dream of achieving the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and the millionaire Barons of the First Class dream of their hegemony lasting forever.
Creative team: Director Thom Southerland, Musical Staging Cressida Carré, Musical Director Mark Aspinall, Set & Costume Designer David Woodhead, Lighting Designer Howard Hudson, Sound Designer Andrew Johnson.
Sat, 28th May 2016 to Sat, 6th August 2016
Charing Cross Theatre