Tuesday 30 July 2013

Theatre review: Titanic

I wonder how many people will turn up at Southwark Playhouse for Titanic the Musical expecting an all-singing, all-dancing adaptation of the James Cameron film? I'm afraid you won't be seeing any high-kicks to "Paint Me Like Your French Girls, Jack" or a curtain-call rendition of "Oops I Did It Again" complete with the bit where the Heart of the Ocean gets retrieved from the depths. Instead, Maury Yeston and Peter Stone's version takes all its characters from real people who sailed on the iconic but doomed liner, some of them staying on to her final destination, others getting off at an earlier, more convenient point. This is a true ensemble piece that tries to build a flavour of all four different groups of people who sailed on Titanic, simplified down to a mostly-American First Class, mostly-English Second Class, mostly-Irish Third Class plus a crew from around the British Isles.

Among these groups there's also four love stories, some of which will have happier endings than others. The first act sets up the huge cast (of 20, most of them playing at least two characters each) so that we get to know them before the iceberg turns up to spoil their fun.

Yeston's music is rousing and powerfully sung, but soon starts to sound very samey, with only a couple of strong tunes really standing out, and the first half of the show in particular gets pretty long-winded. The irony of the hopes and dreams for the future - "It's a new world out there" is a repeated phrase - being invested in a journey we know to be doomed is palpable, but milked to breaking point long before things start getting chilly and soggy. While the attempt to make an emotional connection with the audience is hampered by the sheer amount of characters thrown at us over the first 90 minutes, a huge ask for the cast to make us care about them.

Where the show has struck lucky is with bringing over Thom Southerland, a director who'd been making a name for himself with his musical theatre revivals in the old venue's Vault, to helm the first musical in the new main house. He comes up with a pretty spectacular production, helped by designer David Woodhead's two-tier set that's effectively used to convey the ship's impossible scale in a small venue. And you may think theatre can't replicate the film's depiction of the ship cracking in half and upending but dammit, Woodhead's set is going to give it a bloody good try.

There's also a cracking cast making just as much of an effort to make their characters stand out. Matthew Crowe is likeable as the rather camp telegraph operator Bride, wildly enthusiastic about his ability to communicate with the world. Siôn Lloyd is Murdoch, the First Officer whose lack of confidence has tragic results, Greg Castiglioni's Andrews is the engineer trying to reconcile the company's outrageous demands with common sense, and James Hume's steward Etches is the very image of calm professionalism in the face of catastrophe. Of the multiple couples, the standout are Dudley Rogers and Judith Street as the elderly Strauses, who'd rather die together than survive apart, while Nadim Naaman and Claire Marlowe embody the class issues that permeate the show, running away to America to elope because her father disapproves of him, and arguing about "social class" (you can tell it was originally written for an American audience - no English person ever needs to clarify what kind of class they're arguing about.)

I'm also not going to complain about a show that spends time in the boiler room, following the stokers led by James Austen-Murray's grubby Barrett as they get sweaty and make plans for a better future. Things definitely improve in the second act as the disaster descends into a game of blame-shifting and the cast throw all their energies into bringing an epic event in the North Atlantic into a warehouse in the Elephant and Castle, but there's no denying that this is a five-star production of, generously, a three-star show.

Titanic by Maury Yeston and Peter Stone is booking until the 31st of August at Southwark Playhouse's Large Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

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