It has been a remarkable voyage for Titanic The Musical.
Launched on Broadway, and winning multiple Tony Awards, it didn’t cross the pond until 2013 when a small and ambitious chamber production won critical acclaim in the snug Southwark Playhouse.
I said then that it deserved a bigger stage and I was proved right. Titanic has gone on to have an off-West End revival in 2016, an international tour, and now a triumphant number one tour around the UK’s major theatres.
This week it has sailed into Northampton’s Royal & Derngate Theatre for a six-night stay, berthed in the vast Derngate auditorium.
And I’m delighted that this powerhouse production is stilling winning fans.
Director, Thom Southerland, at the helm since 2013, has created a masterpiece of modern theatre that is packed with emotion and winning performances.
Indeed its longevity and success has lasted a darn sight longer than the ill-fated Titanic herself, which, from conception to sinking was less than five years.
This is a colossus of a musical whose rousing opening number, Godspeed Titanic, never fails to give me goosebumps and with its reprise reducing me to tears.
Maury Yeston’s melodic tunes soar through the auditorium as if on wings.
I’m incredulous that a ship’s company of only 25 (crew and passengers), together with Mark Aspinall’s remarkable band, consisting of just six, can produce a sound that seemingly comes from three times the number.
Yeston’s music owes a lot to the choral symphonies of Elgar or Vaughan Williams.
The vocals are beefed up by operatic voices in the ensemble which gives each song a phenomenal depth and vigour.
Theatre-goers expecting a modern-style musical will be in for a shock. The style of singing isn’t to everyone’s taste but it is incredibly powerful and deeply moving.
And I heard one woman complain that there wasn’t much of the ship on-stage – considering it was the largest floating object on earth, and 1,000 foot long, I’m not sure what she was expecting designer David Woodhead to conjure up.
Actually he has created a pretty amazing and evocative set which is very atmospheric and effective.
What little of the ship we do see is utilised for above and below decks, from the bridge to the boiler room and the terrifying climax is skilfully handled.
Southerland weaves an epic story together which emphasises the class structure on board.
We learn, among the many fascinating statistics thrown out during the show, that 60 per cent of first class passengers were saved while only 25 per cent of the third class.
Most were locked below decks to drown as there were insufficient lifeboats.
He utilises the theatre itself with the stalls’ aisles used as the ship’s gangways, bringing, at one point, the terrified fleeing women passengers right into the heart of the auditorium.
And the moment that the iceberg strikes, followed by a second act in which those on board face an uncertain future, is both enthralling and heart-rending.
Peter Stone’s sweeping story is deceptively clever. Despite a large number of characters we get to learn about them all, beginning with their optimism and hope and, ultimately, their battle to survive the greatest shipping disaster in history.
From the wealthy Astors and Guggenheims, down to former pitman, Fred Barrett, in the boiler room and a trio of Irish Kates in third class, looking for a new life in America, we are immersed in their lives, albeit for a few short hours.
This is very much an ensemble production – and the cast are uniformly superb – but standout turns are given by Simon Green as the despised ship owner, Joseph Bruce Ismay, Philip Rham so authentic as Captain Edward Smith and Claire Machin as aspiring second class passenger Alice Beane.
Green, who has played Ismay throughout, gives a tour de force turn as the repugnant villain, Ismay. Some of the earlier subtlety has gone and his demeanour, at the end, is so loathsome that you almost want to boo him. It’s a towering performance.
Machin provides levity as we watch her desperate attempts to hobnob with the gentry and Rham looks so at home on the bridge that you’d think he was born for the role.
Titanic The Musical is a mighty show, from bow to stern and is, unlike its namesake, surely unsinkable.
Titanic runs in the Derngate auditorium until Saturday.