Titanic The Musical at The Playhouse Theatre Edinburgh this week (Tue 12 to Sat 16 June) brings to life on stage what is, for me, one of the most under-rated musicals of the past 20 years or so (although it did win a very impressive 5 Tony awards in its opening year of 1997).
Part of the problem for Titanic The Musical is that it is for many people always going to be in the shadow of the hugely successful and now iconic Hollywood blockbuster of the same year –Titanic starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet. With the enduring images from the film and the hugely successful Celine Dion song from the film “My Heart Will Go On” forever playing in many people’s minds still, this is the time, early in this review to point out that you are not going to hear that song in this production. Titanic The Musical is not an adaptation of the film, it is a completely separate entity with nothing other than the name “Titanic” to share with the film. Don’t let any of this put you off though, because “Titanic The Musical” has some superb songs in its musical score and is an impressive work of musical theatre.
From the very beginning, as a concept, “Titanic” has one huge flaw, and that is that everyone knows how the story ends. From a writer’s perspective, that obviously creates a huge problem, but very skilful writing - music and lyrics by Maury Yeston and book by Peter Stone - overcomes that problem by creating identifiable characters that draw the audience into this story to the point that you actually start to hope that rescue somehow will come in time to Titanic and somehow change history.
History tells us in cold facts that, on its maiden voyage to America, Titanic sank in the North Atlantic ocean in the early hours of 15 April 1912 with a massive loss of life due in part to a woefully inadequate amount of lifeboats on board for the number of passengers it carried. This story adds human identities to the story in our crew and passengers. Titanic was not only a floating “wonder of the age”, but a floating microcosm of society with first, second and third class passengers having completely different experiences and fates upon her.
The musical score and songs of this production are as grand in their scope as any opera, and they cover the full range of human emotions – hope, love, loss, and tragedy. Our music also very carefully matches the characters who sing it, adding another layer to their identities.
Staging this multi-level story, which is spread over the many decks of Titanic (which had 10 decks, excluding the top of the officers’ quarters), is no easy feat. Eight of these decks were for passengers with richest at the top, poorest at the bottom, and even further down below the boiler rooms, engine rooms and other “operationally functional” spaces. Despite its top tier splendour, this ship still relied upon the back breaking labour of stockers to constantly keep the boiler rooms’ furnaces stocked with coal to power the engines. A very good design set allows all levels of the ship to be on stage without any major scene changes.
What of our cast of crew and passengers, as they are the story? Well, everyone is very good here, but a few stand out more than others, and that is to be fair more to do with the focus on their character than any reflection on their talent. Philip Rham - Captain Edward Smith, Simon Green - J. Bruce Ismay (director of The White Star Line) and Greg Castiglioni -Thomas Andrews (ship designer) skilfully provide much of the tension in our story as interests of procedure, safety and the attempt to break Atlantic Crossing speed records for a cruise ship collide with one another. Matthew McKenna - Henry Etches, 1st Class Steward is the main connection that we have between crew and passengers.
It is difficult to pick out specific passengers, but our third class passengers known collectively as “the Three Kates” - Devon-Elise Johnson (Kate Murphy), Emma Harrold (Kate Mullins) and Victoria Serra (Kate McGowan) - seeking new lives in America have obvious, but not intended at the time, relevance to economic migrants travelling by boat now to new lands in the hope of a better life. Our Kates have dreams, but they are not massive, to become a seamstress, a lady’s maid and a governess.
Taking much of the spotlight in this story is Claire Machin as the economically and socially aspirational Alice Beane, and Claire is so obviously having fun with some of her dialogue in here, particularly as her upwardly mobile aspirations are not shared by her husband Edgar Beane played by Timothy Quinlan
Stealing this show for me as always though, a beautiful relationship of the very wealthy and elderly couple Isidor Straus (Dudley Rogers) and Ida Straus (Judith Street). Their final duet together, “Still” is simply a wonderful song
Niall Sheehy as stoker Frederick Barrett deserves a mention too for "Barrett's Song - “The screws are turning". This character also provides one of the sharpest contrasts between the people on the ship. The cost of sending a telegraph message is more than his wages for the return trip.
Titanic is a musical at the end of the day and music is what it must sink or swim on (bad pun I know). Titanic the ship as we all know sinks, but the music here does not. From the opening overture to the finale there are stage musical classics all the way through this production - "Godspeed Titanic", "In Every Age" and "We'll Meet Tomorrow" are just a few of them.
Titanic is a huge story to condense into a few hours on stage, but the story of a tragedy where 1517 men, women and children lost their lives is skilfully told, adding new layers to the story of why only 706 passengers and crew survived (despite there being many empty spaces on the lifeboats). At the end of this show, you cannot walk away without wondering if all of this was avoidable.
Review by Tom King