Titanic The Musical | Theatre review
Grand Opera House, Belfast • Tuesday 24 April ’18
By Conor O’Neill • Photography: Scott Rylander
It’s always been a puzzle to me; why do the Northern Irish people take such pride in the Titanic? One of the biggest maritime losses of life in peacetime seems an odd thing to puff your chest out about, but hey, it brings in the tourists and their money so who am I to argue? And as if to compound this truth I enter a packed, and I mean – a totally packed Grand Opera House for Titanic The Musical. Not a pew left in the house. A mixed audience, lots of different age groups, people from different social strata, with maybe more females than males.
The set is quite simple for such a lavish production. A tier surrounds the stage, ropes hang down with ladders at the rear and the front to allow access above while a ladder on wheels serves as crow’s nest, conductor’s mount and all manner of other nifty set changes, of which there are too many to count. During the two and a half hour show we’re brought from loading bay to gang-plank to captain’s table, ballroom, a sweaty boiler room, radiographer’s office, deck, lifeboats, and more besides. A wonderful use of the tier is exampled toward the end when the aft of the ship is literally pulled up by ropes (which I thought were purely ornamental to give that nautical feel) and the floor moves to near vertical as ship designer Andrews clings for his life before meeting the inevitable).
The cast is led by the three leading men. Namely the money loving, legend wanting and wonderfully insidious Mr. Ismay; if this were panto season boos and cries of derision would certainly thunder every time the man takes the stage. The commanding performance of Simon Green coupled with his thunderous voice brings tingles to the hairs on the arms. Captain Edward Smith with his Hemingway-esque beard and rough manner repeatedly reminds the fame-seeking owner that: “While the ship is at sea, I’m in charge,” Phillip Rham proves to be a good choice to fill the captain’s cap. The last of the trio is designer Thomas Andrews, a nervy man; maybe not on shore but with Ismay demanding the Titanic be known as a: “Six day boat”, Andrews is constantly being questioned on how fast the ship can go, what the engine can handle pressure wise, and finally: “How long will she last?” The trios finest moment on stage is the third song after the interval. Aptly named The Blame all three are trying their best to load the guilt on the other two.
Of course, this musical is about much more than just those in power. We have the first class passengers, there to be seen rather than any need to travel; the second class, most with aspirations of joining the former, and finally, the third class who are those running from poverty to the new world for a chance of a better life. Each class has a story and the book by Peter Stone has cleverly focused on a couple of each class to tell of the less than obvious class wars and the distinctions made between them to make sure none rub shoulders with their betters or lowers. If only someone had told Alice Beane (Claire Machin), wife of long-suffering hardware store owner Edgar (Timothy Quinlan). She gate-crashes the toffs’ ball and even when the ship is sinking and she’s told she’s to be loaded onto the lifeboats with high society she insists: “I must go and put my face on.” Edgar: “The ship will have sunk by then.” Unlike many musicals, Maury Yeston (writer of music and lyrics) realises that not everything has to be sung and danced. There’s a lot of little one-liners, bringing characters to life and smiles to faces.
Of the third class, the focus is mainly on the Irish. Namely, the three Kates, all of whom are seeking fortune and one, fame across the Atlantic; Kate McGowan (Victoria Serra) is the main focal point, not only seeking a job she also carries a secret. Jim Farrell (Chris McGuigan) is quite taken by McGowan’s charms. Will the make it alive? Never mind that, Kate’s initial concerns are of the rats: “Third class passengers are to be warned not to take their food below deck. It only encourages the rats.” Kate: “There are rats on a brand new ship?” “Of course, they’re always the first to board!” Another couple are elopers Lady Caroline Neville (Claire Marlowe) a woman of high birth and her son of a greengrocer, lover Charles Clarke (Stephen Webb). Caroline runs the gauntlet as she tries to stay out of the way of some of her father’s wealthy associates while she slums it with the blue collar types below deck.
Ida Straus (Judith Street) and her billionaire entrepreneur husband Isidor (Dudley Rogers) have a subplot all of their own, and a touching one at that. And then we have the crew. Fred Barrett (Niall Sheehy) boiler room man and his co-workers have one of the finest dance scenes of the performance. As Isman demands more coal goes into the furnaces, the five sweating shovel workers dance and sing as loud as the engine using their shovels to great effect. First mate, William McMaster Murdoch (Kieran Brown), bandleader, Henry Etcher (Mathew Mckenna) and the rest of a fantastic cast turn a tragedy and a travesty into a smashing night of theatre.
The music is quality throughout. Maury Yeston’s CV and award collection is a testament to his life in showbiz. From loving waltzes to the polka driven Barrett’s Song to the Jeeves and Wooster type jazz of Doing the Latest Rag which has the highly dressed high society and Mrs Alice Beane in a quiver to the intro of the majestic In Every Age and the sobering Godspeed Titanic Reprise; little wonder Titanic The Musical won a five Tony Awards when it debuted.
The cast of Titanic The Musical
The audience was on its feet moments after the last chord was struck. Chorus and each cast member got a rafter-shaking cheer as they bowed. The last to receive adoration was the man pulling the strings, or rather swinging the baton, music director, Mark Aspinall. He and his five (by the racket they made I was sure there was at least two dozen in the pit) fellow musicians, cast and crew along with director Thom Southerland and the rest of the creative team brought a little magic to Belfast tonight.
They will do so until Saturday 28 April. Most shows are sold out though I believe some tickets are available for Thursday and Saturday’s matineệs. There will be a question and answer session before Thursday’s matineệ. To book your tickets call the box office on 02890 241919 or visit www.goh.co.uk
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