It was the ship that god himself couldn’t sink. Titanic set sail in 1912 carrying the hopes and dreams of its crew, passengers and country – and it was doomed to end in tragedy.
Titanic the musical, has sailed majestically through calmer seas and, unlike its namesake, made it back from North America to a tickertape welcome in London.
Thom Southerland’s ship-shape production has returned, after a three-year voyage, to a five-star opening at Charing Cross Theatre last night. It is nothing short of sensational.
Maury Yeston’s award-winning score and dramatist Peter Stone’s powerful social commentary sweep you on board within minutes of your arrival.
The theatre’s small stage has been transformed into the White Star Line’s flagship vessel, the Royal Mail Steamer Titanic, its deck rails shining and every rivet burnished in David Woodhead’s stunning and evocative set.
Stone’s moving story is a microcosm of Edwardian society – the millionaires inhabiting the ship’s grand state rooms, the socially aspiring second class trying to sneak a peak on how the other half live, the excited third class passengers, mostly Irish, hoping for a better life in America.
A trio of rousing songs gets the production under sail – In Every Age, Opening and Godspeed Titanic – and they’re so uplifting that my heart quickened at prospect of joining the passengers on this ground-breaking maiden voyage aboard the ship of dreams.
Thank god Céline Dion’s My Heart Will Go On was left ashore with the movie. Here the thrilling chamber version fills every corner of the theatre, drowning out the tube trains that haunt the venue, giving goosebumps with exhilarating melodies and stirring vocals.
And here we meet the very people who boarded Titanic on that fateful day in Southampton. Its captain, Edward Smith, planning this as his last voyage before retirement (though Philip Rahm delighted to reprise the role from the original Southwark Playhouse production); his number two, the indecisive Mr Murdock who had made a career out of avoiding responsibility and command; the committed and passionate architect Mr Andrews – and the villain of the piece, ship-owner Bruce Ismay (David Bardsley brilliantly restrained).
Among the passengers Claire Machin’s Alice Beane, from second class, stands out for her social aspirations, nosiness and ability to fill the audience in on the background of everyone who matters who is boarding.
But, like the film version, the emotional heart of the story lies below decks with the crew and third class passengers who are fleeing famine and war in Ireland to a new life in places they have only seen written on a map.
Poster boy for the ship is former ITV Superstar finalist, Niall Sheehy, who cuts a dashing and heroic figure as a stoker shovelling coal in the engine room.
Making the voyage run smoothly is in the hands of the ever capable and charming first class steward, Mr Etches (James Gant superbly deferential and a real credit to the White Star Line).
There is an impressive cast of 20 – which is huge for an off-West End production – yet they effortlessly double and sometimes triple up to play other parts. The characters are brought vividly to life and it’s all the more heart-breaking. Yes, I choked back a sob at the end.
Stone uses real people and their real names from the ship’s manifest which gives the story an added depth. Here are people who we very quickly get to know and love. We share their aspirations and we shiver as time and again the radio messages warning of an iceberg are ignored.
The creative crew have done an incredible job with this production – which really should be transferred to a mainstream West End theatre – with the atmosphere beautifully captured by the show’s costumes, its set and, most of all the chilling, all important moment when the mighty Titanic hits ice.
“Jesus, look at the size of it!” bellows a terrified sailor. “It’s like the rock of ruddy Gibraltar!”
Andrew Johnson’s evocative sound design pitches us at the heart of the disaster. I swear that the theatre shuddered as the hull smashed against the side of the iceberg, ripping a hole in its side.
This is masterly story-telling by Southerland, whose Titanic launches a season of top musicals helmed by him at Charing Cross Theatre. Everything about Titanic is as faultless as Mr Etches’ silver service.
Book tickets now. This is one voyage that you don’t want to miss.
Titanic The Musical runs at Charing Cross Theatre until August 6.