Northern Stage are having a cracking year in 2018 and with The Last Ship, the Newcastle theatre realises its potential. Not known for musicals, the venue has taken the music of Sting and crafted a show that hits the spot. It is a real call to arms and The Last Ship celebrates the communities that lived in the shadow of the ships that were built along our coastline.
The Last Ship involves a shipyard foreman Jackie (Joe McGann) working on another project along with union shop steward Billy (Joe Caffrey), drunk Davey (Kevin Wathen) and wannabe poet Adrian (Charlie Richmond). Jackie has to battle with the yard management Mr Newland (Sean Kearns) and politicians like Baroness Tynedale (Penelope Woodman) but he has the loyal support of his wife Peggy (Charlie Hardwick). Meanwhile, son of former ship worker, Gideon (Richard Fleeshman) lands after 17 years away to check up on his old girlfriend Meg (Frances McNamee) with whom he has had no contact with whilst he was away at sea. Meg is now the landlady of the shipyard’s local pub and she lives there with her 16 year old daughter Ellen (Katie Moore) who wants to run off to London with the band that she has formed. The future of Meg’s business is linked to the survival of the ship yard and it seems like the business of the yard is everyone’s concern.
This is very much an ensemble piece with up to 16 voices adding their magic to Sting’s music and lyrics. There is a generous distribution of songs to highlight the talents of Frances McNamee, Katie Moore and Charlie Hardwick. The lads too get their moment in the spotlight with fine performances from Joe Caffrey and Charlie Richmond however it is the way in which Richard Fleeshman sounds so uncannily like Sting himself which really stands out. In the wing of the wide stage are a live band under musical director Richard John.
The set design has the action happening on a number of levels as the gangways run above the stage. A number of screens descend form time to time and the projections put onto these screens can change the setting from Jackie and Peggy’s living room to Meg’s pub very quickly. This in turn helps keep the pace up and allows the action to flow. The only problem as I saw it was when the ensemble were behind 2 sets of screens and were hardly visible as they sang, though that might have been the idea. The screens give an impression of the scale of the shipbuilding and you can feel the action as the welding takes place up above. Adding to the atmosphere was the sound design that added a church like echo to the voices when they were in such a venue. It was a nice touch.
This tale differs from the show that took place on Broadway a few years ago in that the book has been completely rewritten by Northern Stage’s Lorne Campbell. Whilst the songs have been retained, Lorne has created a tale that discusses workforce friction, family tensions and the political climate that we now trade in. He does that without getting too heavy or too preachy. Having said that, the call to arms for a revolution is thinly hidden whenever Joe Caffrey’s Billy is negotiating on behalf of the workers. We enjoyed Get Carter but this production puts Lorne’s work on a whole new level and he is to be congratulated as both the writer and director for pulling off such a great show.
It is, as I’ve already said, an ensemble piece. The cast work hard and the pool of their collective talents produces a show which is really special. It is going to go on tour and I’m not sure how accessible a show about Wallsend will be with its local references. For example, “Going for tests at the RVI” means something to anyone in Newcastle but may leave the good people of Dublin baffled. Regardless of those – everyone will understand the struggle of the workers to keep the jobs and conditions intact and the impact of an old flame returning to visit his first love. There is most that unites us than what divides us in that respect.
The Last Ship is an exceptional production from Northern Stage. Great music and an interesting storyline delivered by a fabulous cast makes this show one of the first major highlights of the region’s theatrical year. The standing ovation was well deserved. I would happily go and see it again.
(c) North East Theatre Guide by Stephen Oliver
(Photo by Pamela Raith)