Any attempt to dramatize the first and final voyage of the Titanic will, inevitably, struggle with a structural challenge. The first four days of the crossing were uneventful. On the fifth day, after the ship hit an iceberg, a lot of things happened very quickly and extremely chaotically. Then, after the lifeboats had been launched, events unfurled with an agonizing slowness, as those left on the doomed liner waited to die, and those who had been saved watched and listened in horror. It’s not a timeline that lends itself to tight storytelling.
The epic 1997 film got around this by fabricating a Romeo and Juliet love story across the class divide. Titanic – The Musical, also first staged in 1997, presents a web of characters, named after actual people who sailed on the voyage, and imagines some of the relationships that might have existed between them. The effect of this is to break up the incomprehensible humanitarian scale of the disaster and present a few relatable fragments of it.
To an extent this works. The characters are well drawn and the glimpses of the lives that we see are real and engaging. Where this element of the drama is let down is in the music.
Composer, Maury Teston’s score is very much of the Sondheim school, text driven and quite pattery at times, with a seasoning of American Minimalism in its extensive use of ostinato accompaniments. It has a yearning, surging quality that works very well in the larger scale, rousing ensemble and choral numbers. However, it is the kind of music designed to serve the action. Where there is action, it serves well. But this is a show with long passages where the plot is static and we are focused on an exploration of character and relationship. Where this is the case, the score can be repetitious and does not register with sufficient emotional impact. As a result Act I eventually drags.
The production is a solid one. The stage is lined with massive sheets of riveted steel. It is as though we are already in the submerged wreck. The split-level acting space is flexible and the action flows well as a result. A talented and committed cast acts its socks off. There is some very fine singing, and the massed voices of the combined ensemble deliver an impressive and stirring wall of sound.
Act II succeeds well in depicting growing panic and despair. There is a poignant moment of stillness and reflection after the sinking, and then, cyclically, we return to the first chorus. This is now reframed as an expression of catharthis; a realisation brought about by tragedy, rather than hubristic triumphalism. It’s a clever device and a dignified end to a show that presents its difficult subject matter with taste, respect and restraint.
J Bruce Ismay – Martin Allanson * Ida Straus – Valda Akiks * Captain Edward Smith – Graham Bickley * Frederick Fleet– Sam Brown * Edgar Beane – James Darch * Isidor Straus – David Delve * Head Maid –Catherine Digges * Frederick Barrett – Adam Filipe * Kate Murphy – Emily George * Andrew Latimer – Luke Harley * Lady Caroline Neville – Emma Harrold * Harold Bride – Alastair Hill * Maid – Abi Hudson * Herbert Pitman / Henry Etches – Barnaby Hughes * Joseph Boxhall – Paul Kemble * Kate Mullins – Niamh Long * Charles Clarke – Matthew McDonald *Thomas Andrews – Ian McLarnon *Joseph Bell – Danny Michaels * Jim Farrell – Chris Nevin * Charles Lightoller – Jack North * Bellboy / Wallace Hartley – Joseph Peacock * William McMaster Murdoch – Billy Roberts * Alice Beane – Bree Smith * Kate McGowan – Lucie-Mae Sumner
Music & Lyrics – Maury Yeston * Book – Peter Stone * Director – Thom Southerland * Set & Costume Designer – David Woodhead * Lighting Designer – Howard Hudson * Sound Designer – Andrew Johnson * Musical Staging – Cressida Carré * New Musical Arrangements – Ian Weinberger * Musical Director – Ben Papworth