The Last Ship, Sting’s musical homage to the industry and the people that he grew up with in the shadow of the huge ships built at the Wallsend shipyards, sails onto the Edinburgh stage this week (Tue 12 to Sat 16 June) at The Festival Theatre.
Gordon Sumner aka Sting the musician has come a very long way since leaving the streets of his youth, but it is obvious in this production that the shipyards of his family, friends and community have never left his heart. This story may be fictional, but woven through it in words and song are many elements with a deep personal connection to Sting himself. For the moment, this is probably as close as we will get to “his story”.
With music and lyrics by Sting, and book by director Lorne Campbell, “The Last Ship” is really two stories interwoven into one another - the love story of our two young teenagers Gideon Fletcher (Richard Fleeshman) and Meg Dawson (Frances McNamee) put on hold for seventeen years, and the events that led to the workers’ occupation of the local shipyard determined to launch the last ship built there, “Utopia”. Set against the obvious imagery of sailing off to a Utopian land of hopes, there is the grim reality of the circumstances that this community are facing, and the words of the songs reflect this struggle in both contemporary and historical terms.
“The Last Ship” has at times a very operatic feel to its musical structure, but there are also elements of classic musical theatre here mixed in with a working class theatrical drama. In this production, we have songs of hope, dreams, pride and hardship reflected in songs like "Island of Souls", "The Last Ship”, "When We Dance" and "The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance". If there is a stand out song to be chosen for me from this impressive musical set then it has to be the very powerful "Dead Man's Boots". “The Last Ship” may be a musical, but the heart of it is in the words, and here Sting has been (as usual) very careful in using his words to tell a story. This is not a production that you can “switch on and off from”, there is far too much narrative in both song and drama to allow you to do this.
If I have any issues with this production, it is that some of the elements have been used so often – boy leaves girl and comes back many years later in the hope of still being with her and along the way finds out some unknown truths. Do they have a happy ending to their story? Plot lines leave few options for any innovative resolution. Some of the characters – the socialist firebrand, the drunk, the at odds teenager/mother scenario, the tough but fair foreman, the uncaring boss and political figures - do at times give us one dimensional stereotypes that again have been used so many times before by writers that it must be difficult to breathe new life into them. I have to be fair though and say that within the story and events that “The Last Ship” covers that it is difficult to avoid these stereotypes as they are real people too. Sorry folks, but stereotypes do exist everywhere, and without many extra hours onto this musical it is just not possible to put more flesh onto their characters’ bones.
Richard Fleeshman (Gideon Fletcher) and Frances McNamee (Meg Dawson) are both very good musically and dramatically, and this never was going to be a sugar coated “Romeo and Juliet” romance story. There are some tough lines here, and Meg has not had an easy life since Gideon left all those years ago. That anger and resentment is handled well here by Frances. Gideon, however, seems to be far more idealistic and never quite accepting of his responsibility for his actions all those years ago, or the consequences arising from them for Meg. There is at times a strange detachment between the two “lovers”. Richard does however have a singing voice that although not mimicking Sting’s in any way does retain a lot of his sound and phrasing.
Perhaps oddly, for me, the real personal story of this show is not in the principal leads, but shipyard foreman and his wife - Joe McGann as Jackie White and Penelope Woodman as Peggy White. These were the two characters in this story that I actually started to care about as people, and both Joe and Penelope were believable in any individual scenes that they were in and also stole many of the other scenes they appeared in. Something about either of them always drew your attention straight to them on stage. Here we have a couple in the later years of their lives who have known one another since they were in infant school (as our lead lovers did too). This is the very heart of this story, a community that had up until this point always been together no matter what the odds.
“The Last Ship” has seen a lot of evolution since its initial concept some years ago, but this touring production is a huge project with not only one of the most impressive sets that I have seen for a long time, but innovative use of cutting edge digital stage technology. This is a big budget production, and it shows.
It is difficult to deal with this story without touching on the obvious political situation of the time and the polar political theory opposites of capitalism versus socialism. This review is not really the place to delve too deeply into that area, but I still have very strong views about how the government of a “free democracy” deliberately set out to break the power and working rights that working class men and women had fought so hard for over the years and in the process destroy great backbones of the British economy – Iron, Steel, Coal, Ship building and Railroads. Not only did the Conservative government of the day achieve this goal, but they did it by using a civilian police force as an almost private army with a brutality that had no place in any civilised society. What does a community do when everything it has known and everything it has the skills to do is taken away from it? The answer, despite many promises of skills retraining and economic renewal at the time is simple – that community dies and the skills it had are lost to future generations. The port and former shipyards of Leith are not too far away from The Festival Theatre. We have first-hand experience here of what the builders of “The Last Ship” were fighting for.
Perhaps one flaw in the whole workers’ argument here is that although morally this was “their shipyard”, legally it was never “their shipyard” and that was always going to lead to one inevitable conclusion.
This is one production that I have been indecisive about both watching and writing this review of as some of the characters are by necessity stereotypes and a little one dimensional. The old lover returning to hopefully start where he left off many years ago is hardly innovative either, but adding up all the separate elements – music, lyrics, general story, some characters that did interest me, light, sounds, set and use of stage technology, everything still has to add up to 5 stars.
A little extra note here on some things. The stained glass window that is the artwork for “The Last Ship” (and used in the production) comes from The Cathedral Church of St Mary’s in Newcastle upon Tyne and was commissioned by one of its parishioners. If you take a walk down to the gap site at the corner of North Junction Street beside Leith Theatre, there is a huge mural painted onto the exposed side of a tenement also celebrating Leith’s proud working history as a port in art, and of course including ship building.
Review by Tom King