The Last Ship
Festival Theatre Edinburgh JUNE 15th 2018
There can be few avid theatre goers who are unaware of the sometimes troubled waters which this show has had to navigate through. However this latest touring production hove to in the calm harbour which is the Festival Theatre for a week long shore leave. Right that is the end of my sailing metaphors for this revue (well maybe). As a broadcaster I was sent the soundtrack to Sting’s then new show at the time of release and whilst I did enjoy hearing the tracks I felt somewhat detached from the material as few of the “songs” had the kind of catchy melodies present in many musicals. Now however matching the visuals and story to the music and it all began to make much more sense. Again I can also understand why it did not have a particularly happy time in New York. For such a huge country with, and this is very much a personal observation, with a population not widely aware of what is happening outside of their own State let alone their own country they would have been totally unaware of the social and political background references which form the bedrock of the story. I feel that here in UK audiences will be able to associate themselves to what was happening in the late 1970s and 1980s as the very heart of age old production facilities in mining, steel production, car manufacturing, newspaper printing and of course shipbuilding were ripped asunder. Whole communities were cast aside like yesterdays rubbish in the name of profit and progress. The Last Ship is a wonderful look at the impact such decisions had on communities and workers, in this case around Tyneside, but could be Clydeside, Merseyside, Belfast or many other places.
Central to the story we find local lad Gideon Fletcher (played by Richard Fleeshman) returning home after seventeen years at sea hoping to reconnect with his former love Meg played with a feistiness and subtlety by Frances McNamee, who is not best pleased to see him, and finding the town in caos as the shipyard is set to close with an almost finished ship threatened with being broken up for scrap. Whilst the romance works well in terms of performance the real drive and energy of the show comes from the way those wider social issues are dealt with.
Have no doubt this is very strong ensemble body of work where the foreman (Jackie White), here inhabited by the skill of Joe McGann, is torn between standing with his crews and trying to accommodate the changes being implemented by management and politicians. Along with his wife Peggy (Charlie Hardwick) whose deep love for each other with an understanding born of a lifetime spent together anchors (sorry another one slipped through) this very real life story.
Honourable mentions also to Davey the hard drinking builder who might have slipped over the edge into being a caricature was held just right by Kevin Wathen. The somewhat bewildered shop steward (Joe Caffrey) and his well read but ineffectual buddy (Charlie Richmond) are also reasonably rounded characters.
Despite this being a fairly macho driven piece the best characters are actually the girls including a spirited outing by Katie Moore as Meg and Gideon’s daughter Ellen who like her dad seeks to leave the Tyneside home of her birth seeking fame as a singer.
The songs were all written by Sting specifically for the show and when heard in context most work much better in moving the story along. However whilst some are real tub thumpers often they are quite heavy in content and when married to thick local accents you have to concentrate hard to follow what is going on even in the dialogue which is funny and even cutting at times.
Full mention to the unseen band members who underpin all the songs with a mixture of traditional folk element up to a much fuller anthemic style support.
Staging is first class all the way with heavy ship girders augmented by the use of projected images and subtle lighting bringing cranes, house chimneypots etc to the fore.
So while the story revolves around the feeling of being trapped within a situation spiralling out of control I came away with a feeling that damn it all yes we can stand up for what we believe is right and true in the face of seeming overwhelming odds and succeed in breaking through into a strong current and set our own course for the freedom of the seas (oh heck two final ones).
Graeme Scott K107FM