First published in The Times, Friday March 23
Often, when rock stars turn their talents to musical theatre, the result is little more than an extended medley of their greatest hits, tenuously strung together by a nominal storyline. While the score for Sting’s Tyneside-set musical The Last Ship features several entries from the singer-songwriter’s discography, including songs from his 2013 concept album of the same name, there is nothing cynical or jaded about the deeply personal project.
Indeed, so heartfelt is this story of a shipbuilding community, based on Sting’s hometown of Wallsend at the time of the yard closures of the late Eighties that it occasionally borders on overkill. The piece, which has temporarily docked in the singer-songwriter’s native Newcastle before heading off on an extensive tour, clearly means a lot to its maker. The musician helped prolong the show’s struggling run on Broadway in 2014 when he replaced the actor Jimmy Nail in one of the lead roles. He was once again on hand during previews at Northern Stage, taking to the boards when one of the cast members fell ill.
Pic: Pamela Raith
Lorne Campbell, the artistic director of Northern Stage, has reworked the book for this new production, ditching some extraneous characters and subplots, and foregrounding only a couple of personal stories against the mighty backdrop of the shipyard, which is recreated in all its awesome height and depth by 59 Productions, the show’s designers, and spectacularly lit by Matt Daw. Secondary settings, including a house and a pub interior, conjured through the use of video projection, seem a little puny in comparison.
Campbell does a remarkable job of weaving together these technical components with the live action and the versatile five-piece band. The well-drilled ensemble of 16 actors performs with unflagging energy, with the voices blending beautifully on the big numbers and Lucy Hind’s simple choreography of jutting elbows, stomping and clapping adding percussive bottom to the musical accompaniment. Key ensemble numbers such as the title track and the defiant What Have We Got? soar and stir, even if, over the course of three hours, the score comes to feel a little repetitive and relentless.
Pic: Pamela Raith
The main plotline, in which the owners of the shipyard and the disagreeable forces of Conservative government meet passionate resistance to their managed decline of the industry, follows a fairly predictable if nonetheless enjoyable route. The chief pleasures here arise from the show’s more intimate moments. The leads are all strong, both dramatically and vocally, with Frances McNamee and Richard Fleeshman betraying great chemistry as the young, recently reunited lovers Meg and Gideon, while Joe McGann and Charlie Hardwick are superbly touching as yard foreman Jackie White and his wife, Peggy. For all its occasional po-facedness, there is no denying the show’s passion and resonance, not least in front of Sting’s home audience.
Box office: 0191 230 5151, to April 7. Touring the UK and Ireland to July 7. Thelastshipmusical.co.uk