Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Titanic the Musical

Music & lyrics: Maury Yeston. Book: Peter Stone
Danielle Tarento, Steven M. Levy and Vaughan Williams for Capital Musicals Ltd in association with Mayflower Theatre, Southampton
The Lowry, Salford
07 May 2018 to 12 May 2018

In the same time it took between the infamous oceanliner hitting an iceberg and sinking beneath the Atlantic – two hours 40 minutes – this musical adaptation of its story manages to pack aboard a remarkably satisfying mix of character, drama and song.

Good luck, and good management, may have evaded the Titanic, but this original American production at last achieves an English performance worthy of its scale and class. It’s 21 years since it launched on Broadway, and despite picking up notable awards it has never quite taken off in the country that built the ill-fated vessel.

The symphonic stylings of Maury Yeston’s music and lyrics, coupled with the largely sung-through story-telling of Peter Stone’s book, might make it rather more challenging than some other modern musicals, but it is rewarding in its concentration on the very human dimension to the disaster.

Nowadays the Titanic story is remembered for the hubris that brought about tragedy. Shipowner Bruce Ismay’s insistence on speed, prompting Captain Smith’s gradual loss of command, and all compounded by a general feeling that for a nation at the peak of its powers nothing could possibly go wrong . . .

A large cast of 24, several of whom chop and change costumes between first, second and steerage class, make it a constantly busy production. It is essentially an ensemble performance, without ‘star’ names, but that does not hinder the likes of Simon Green, as Ismay, or Philip Rham as Smith. Like several others here, they first embarked on Titanic the Musical five years ago during a revival at Southwark Playhouse, and their experience shows.

Claire Machin, as social-climber Alice, and Devon-Elise Johnson, as equally-aspirational Kate, also make the most of their cameos.

A slightly over-long first act perhaps labours the point about on-board class structure and privilege, and anyone expecting too many theatrical special effects may feel short-changed. The show nevertheless manages a suitably cataclysmic collision, through lighting, and a vertigo-inducing capsize.

You would also need to have a heart of riveted steel not to be moved by the farewell to loved ones, aboard too-few lifeboats, or the final roll-call to the drowned.

Titanic the Musical skilfully manages its melodrama without ever becoming out-and-out mawkish.

Reviewer: David Upton


Comment by Robert Beale

David's being quite indulgent here. The show itself has its weaknesses - like the pseudo-philosophical opening number 'In every age', and the slow-anthem finale (if that's not mawkish, then it was a very close brush indeed with the iceberg of mawk). One of the best bits of the score is the pastiche number 'Doing the latest rag', and it could have done with a few more like that, especially in the second half, when the ship seems to sink rather slowly as one lugubrious number follows another. The story follows typical disaster-movie formulae: we meet a handful of couples and individuals, each of whose world is briefly sketched as it's about to be changed forever by the Great Event, and the show actually does this aspect quite well, as the characters and their roles are made completely clear, and, as David says, there are some good characterizations. Not all of them can sing well, but they get away with it.

It's not one of those mega-budget musicals where you go out whistling the stage effects - the most impressive one, I thought, was sound-only, the big boom when the boilers blow up and everyone realises things are serious; the set itself remains resolutely stable, except for when it briefly shows the stern rising into the air (and then returning to where it was). Its real virtue is its historical research - like Oh What a Lovely War it paints a picture of 100 years ago, but uses authentic colours.

Comment by Diana Stenson

How do you devise a workable set around one of the worst tragedies in merchant  shipping?  By concentrating on the gaping social class divisions on board and keeping the design simple.   "Titanic" was one of the largest passenger vessels of its day, but we were treated to just two decks staged one above the other, divided by boat rails and steps for access.  These two decks became boiler rooms, radio rooms, 1st class banqueting halls, Irish passengers 3rd class accommodation and more. 

As David highlights, Simon Green made an early powerful entrance as Bruce Ismay, owner of the White Star line and therefore the "Titanic".  We are left in no doubt that Ismay was an arrogant, foolish and controlling character - strong pointers to oncoming disaster.  Charles Lightoller, the senior surviving officer (Alistair Barron) had a relatively minor role despite his famous contribution of filling all the lifeboats and then jumping into the freezing sea.  Just for local historians he came from Chorley. 

Few of the musical numbers are memorable but it is rare to see a "possible" relegated  to a ship's boiler room - Barretts Song by chief stoker (Naill Sheehy).  One of the most captivating characters is Alice Bean (sparkling  Claire Machin) a 2nd class passenger desperate to party crash the 1st class socialites - and succeeds, but was it with Astor?  Sadly it would have made no difference (Astor drowned) as the female passengers arrive on deck with life jackets over their nighties queuing for lifeboats.  As we have said before  Salford and  Manchester are generous  audiences and the cast were given a standing ovation.