It has been something of a rough journey for Sting’s debut musical The Last Ship to end up docked on Tyneside, its spiritual home – including a truncated Broadway run and a last-minute change of cast with the departure of local legend Jimmy Nail, who was in the New York production.
But relaunched on friendlier seas, and with an audience that understands its references to Orgreave and Thatcherism, the show shines. It’s a gorgeous, glorious, fist-in-the-air roar of defiance; a triumphant ode to community and solidarity, to the value and dignity of working class lives.
The story revolves around the return of local boy Gideon Fletcher (a charismatic Richard Fleeshman), who comes home after years at sea to find his town in turmoil with the pending shipyard closure, and that the girl he left behind isn’t particularly thrilled to see him. But while the central romantic arc has considerable chemistry and charm – helped by Frances McNamee’s gutsy but nuanced performance as the abandoned Meg – it’s the musicals’s treatment of wider issues that give it such power.
Standing out in a universally strong cast, Joe McGann brings a stoic dignity to the role of foreman Jackie White. He and Charlie Hardwick (as his wife Peggy) eloquently portray a decades-long marriage in a life that has many quiet joys, but has been anything but easy, and their relationship is the real heart of the piece. While the supporting characters are a little broadly drawn, they never fall into caricature.
Kevin Wathen brings empathy to the hard-drinking Davey, disappointed and bitter, while Joe Caffrey, Sean Kearns and Charlie Richmond nicely flesh out characters that could otherwise be a little thin. Penelope Woodman’s Baroness Tynedale is an unholy mix of Dolores Umbridge and Iron Lady, and Katie Moore shines as Meg’s daughter Ellen, who has inherited her father’s wanderlust and her mother’s spiky bravado.
Although inspired by Sting’s album The Soul Cages, most of the songs are original, a smartly paced mix of foot-stomping anthems and more reflective numbers, and director Lorne Campbell’s new book is sharp and often very funny.
59 Productions’ design is stunning, rendering the shipyard in all its terrible beauty. A skyline dominated by chimney stacks and cranes captures the combination of being hemmed in at home while constantly reminded that the whole world is out there, waiting for you to set sail.
The Last Ship is both heart-breaking and uplifting: both intimate and universal. It is a fierce call to arms in the face of austerity, political indifference and corporate contempt. A reminder of the power of people who may have “got nowt else” but who have each other, and with that, can be unstoppable.