Titanic at the Southwark Playhouse soars rather than sinks, in what is the best thing I’ve seen on the Fringe this year.
In every age there is a musical that is delivered with such ingenuity and class that you feel compelled to sit through again and again. The Southwark Playhouse have developed a reputation for producing musicals of exceptional quality, which have in recent years included nods to the masters of modern musical theatre such as Jason Robert Brown’s Parade and Adam Guettel’s Floyd Collins. It seems fitting then for them to take on the London premiere of Maury Yeston’s 1997 musical Titanic, which despite becoming a staple of larger am-dram societies around the country, has never yet had a professional London outing. The original Broadway production took home five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, but became somewhat of a legend in itself for its scale and magnitude
The Southwark brings this right down, presenting the musical in a highly effective thrust setting, in a beautifully intimate production. David Woodhead’s effective set creates a multi-functional space that manages to capture the atmosphere perfectly, without the need for smoke and mirrors. Director Thom Southerland gives us a raw human view of the famous story that expertly captures the essence of the age and the spirit of those aboard, assembling a talented cast who present this well known story as we are watching it for the very first time.
One of the most memorable aspects of the original production was Jonathan Tunick’s incredible orchestrations, yet it was delightful to hear the world premiere of this brand new chamber arrangement of the score. Written for a string quartet, two keys and percussion, the arrangement became a highlight of the piece, providing a phenomenal power underneath the singers. Yeston’s score resonates around the space with such commitment and zeal that you are left somewhat overwhelmed by the sound. Mark Aspinall’s musical direction is tight, sensitive and focused, and the ensemble singing becomes the highlight of the production overall.
Whilst the book of the musical is far from perfect, much is done to combat the obvious staging problems that face the show. The focus is clearly on the people on-board rather than the ship or surroundings itself, and the cast effectively draw you in and give you just enough physical detail to let your imagination do the rest. Peter Stone’s book is somewhat muddled as the lens is widened and focused too much, and it is hard to invest fully in each of the main couples. Whilst it tries to paint a patchwork of the passengers aboard by intermixing their lives, in the clearly defined class system aboard the ship, it suffers the same problem as the ship itself, that of overreaching. Whilst Terrence McNally managed to achieve this desired effect in the contemporary musical Ragtime, the balance of characters in this case isn’t well enough defined, and the audience goes from the very personal to the wider picture far too quickly.
The ensemble cast between them play a whole host of different characters, ranging from the stokers in the bowls of the ship to the famous passengers such as Madeline Astor and Guggenheim. They change costumes constantly to show the various classes aboard and are kept constantly busy bringing over 40 characters to life. The weight of the show rests on the strength of the male cast, with a lot of the focus on the ship’s Captain, designer and owner. We see the disaster through their eyes, with moments of historical irony creating many awkward chuckles from the audience. The repulsive J Bruce Ismay becomes the most unsympathetic character, upon which it is easy to place much of the blame. Designer of the ship Mr Andrews seems troubled from the start, with Greg Castiglioni playing him slightly on the edge throughout, almost as though he suspected trouble from the start. His relationship with the vessel is highlighted by a framing narrative that allows Andrews to take centre stage, which gives an interesting angle for the whole piece.
James Hume provides a stand out performance as Etches, the First Class Steward. His voice is strong, charismatic and engaging, and he becomes a real focal point throughout the narrative. The characters which remain consistent throughout the show are easier to take to, as some others, particularly the third class characters, become lost in the overall plot. Some questionable ‘Oih-rish’ accents are to be expected, and a lot of girls known as Kate fail to make themselves heard. Leo Miles is wonderful in the stand out song from the score ‘No Moon’, uttering the infamous line “Iceberg, right ahead!” which closes the first act. He is consistently watchable throughout and is the most effective at portraying the range of characters needed throughout. James Austen-Murray gives one of the most impressive vocal performances as stoker Barret. He becomes the spokesperson for those working in the ship, and has an exceptional presence and a voice to match. His voice is flawless – commanding yet subtle, and he quickly becomes one of the most interesting characters to track throughout the journey.
Titanic is my favourite Yeston score, and one which is both consistent and surprising. He successfully experiments with a range of styles, creating exciting chorus numbers with beautiful smaller moments which help the famous story feel fresh and interesting. At its best, the score soars high with bold chorus numbers that capture the hope, scale and power of the mighty ship itself. Southerland treats each moment with care and accuracy, in what really is a highly impressive production of an exceptional modern musical.
(photo credits Annabel Vere)