The closure of the country’s shipyards, and the collapse of its shipbuilding industry, was a tragedy keenly felt in areas like Tyneside where whole communities provided generations of skilled labour to keep it afloat.
Sting grew up knowing the pain felt by the people of Wallsend, just a few miles outside Newcastle, when the men’s last shift was over.
He’s channelled their fight and fortitude into his first musical, The Last Ship, which has docked in Northampton’s Royal & Derngate Theatre this week at the start of a UK tour.
I’m still baffled why the superstar would choose to premiere this, very personal, show in America, where it struggled to find an audience and closed after a few weeks, rather than in, say Newcastle.
But back on home soil, if the full house at Tuesday’s opening night was anything to go by, Northern Stage’s moving production will find an audience ready to embrace its melodic tunes and fiery sentiment if not its short-sightedness, naivety and simplicity.
The Last Ship traces its roots back to Sting’s 1991 Soul Cages album and is inspired by the singer’s childhood, growing up among the economic uncertainty of Wallsend, a town that, if it didn’t send its men down the pits, would march them through the gates of Swan Hunter to built ships.
But when the rug is pulled from underneath the workforce, and they’re told that the yards are about to be closed for good, what then?
It’s a question asked in the show by the evil capitalist, Freddy Newlands (Sean Kearn) and the answer that the men come up with is fantastical by any stretch of the imagination.
This heartfelt musical is full of rage and defiance, a reflection of a people who have weathered hard times and doggedly rebuffed its effects.
Young Gideon Fletcher has seen what the shipyards did to his old man, pensioned out after an industrial accident, and he flees the claustrophobia of the town to seek his fortune in the world.
He leaves behind his childhood sweetheart, Meg, and doesn’t return for 17 years. Amazingly, when he does turn up, he doesn’t find her the wife of a docker with seven kids in tow, but still single and running the local boozer.
Richard Fleeshman makes an engaging leading man whose singing voice is very like Sting’s – or perhaps it is for the purposes of this show. He invests the character with flaws and weaknesses, a man whose course through life has battled through swells and rough seas.
Oddly, his younger self, pre-escape, is played by an actor who looks nothing like him, but, magic of the theatre and all that..
Frances McNamee is a fiesty Meg, whose own dreams are dashed by circumstances. If Gideon thinks he can just waltz back into her arms, the romantic hero returned, then he gets a rude awakening.
Their prickly relationship is nicely captured with Meg proving no pushover.
In the dockyard the men, led by shop steward Jackie White (a husky-voiced Joe McGann), are told that the ship they have almost completed, The Utopia, is now unwanted and more valuable broken back up and sold for scrap.
Worse, when ships can be manufactured overseas at a third of the cost, the yard faces closure.
Their only recourse is to take industrial action – until they are outflanked and outgunned by the management.
The musical doesn’t need the political rant at its finale to hammer home the catastrophe facing some of the UK’s traditional strengths – education, the NHS, manufacturing et al nor does it need to suggest some sort of communist takeover.
Sting sees the demise of shipbuilding as the end of life as the people of Tyneside know it. But, the fact is that, rather than ‘what then’ being a rhetorical question, the actual answer is..life does go on.
Today there is massive regeneration in the area and docklands are being put to use building machinery for the marine and oil industry. Wallsend itself has had huge investment. The collapse of one traditional industry has given birth to the emergence of others.
His very personal musical focuses on the human face of political and industrial upheaval. We meet a group of men, and the women behind them, who are terrified of their future and its uncertainty.
Margaret Thatcher is thinly disguised as Baroness Tynedale who visits the yard to address the men. Penelope Woodman offers a caricature impression of the former PM who bullies and intimidates them into accepting a fait accompli.
The ensemble gives fine performances, and their singing soars, although I struggled with the Tyneside accent. I don’t think I understood one word from Kevin Wathen’s angry and defeated welder, Davey Harrison.
The men are gruff and deeply spoken. Add a strong accent into the mix and I lost a lot of the dialogue. The women, with their lighter, more melodic voices, are easier to comprehend.
Charlie Hardwick is compelling as Jackie’s rock, Peggy, who does everything she can to support her ailing husband.
Backing this production are some of the best video grapic sets you’ll ever see in a modern show. Their design comes from 59 Productions, a multi award-winning studio, and they take the story from the cranes and gantries of the shipyard into homes, a church and the local pub, in the blink of an eye.
Their only drawback is that some scenes are played out behind screens, obscuring the cast and distancing them from their audience.
But it is a skilful show with, as you’d expect, a superb range of musical numbers from its creator.
Packed full of humanity and defiance, if a trifle long, The Last Ship is an impressive first show from the pop legend.
Playing in the Derngate auditorium until Saturday.
April 30 May 5, LEEDS GRAND THEATRE May 7 – 12, NOTTINGHAM PLAYHOUSE May 14 – 19, WALES MILLENIUM CENTRE, CARDIFF May 28 – June 2, BORD GAIS ENERGY THEATRE, DUBLIN June 11 – 16, FESTIVAL THEATRE, EDINBURGH June 18 – 23, THEATRE ROYAL GLASGOW June 25 – 30, YORK THEATRE ROYAL July 2 – 7, THE LOWRY, SALFORD.
The Last Ship
Sting sails a controversial course with his first musical, The Last Ship, offering a political rant about the betrayal of the nation’s industry and its workers, but the show features a top ensemble and superb musical numbers.