Earlier this year it was the talk of the musical theatre world when Thom Southerland was appointed the first Artistic Director of Charing Cross Theatre, with the theatre previously being left to its own disastrous devices. Co-producing with Danielle Tarento (the duo behind Grand Hotel, Grey Gardens, Dogfight and Parade), Titanic launches the first season under his watchful eye. Tarento recently came under fire for her comments on unpaid online bloggers, so let’s see what she thinks of this one.
Titanic is a musical masterpiece by Maury Yeston and Peter Stone. Weaving an epic score into a well-known story, we see threes beginning to emerge: the captain, the builder, the owner; the stoker, the lookout, the telegrapher; and three Irish Kates. Then there are the couples in each class: Alice and Edgar Beane, Kate McGowan and Jim Farrell, Isador and Ida Strauss, Lady Caroline and Charles Clarke. All of the characters are based on real names from the Titanic; their stories are mostly bittersweet as we see undertones of the disaster we all know is coming, driven by a need to achieve something more.
With 20 in the cast, this truly is an ensemble piece of theatre. Enriched with all their handwork and soaring sounds, it is hard to pinpoint a single person who doesn’t work to make this show a success. Particularly during ‘Lady’s Maid’ we see the core of the ship, the third class, which showcases the majority of the cast drinking around a table. It is rousing to see such enjoyment and vigour in a number on stage; after all, the number allows the passengers to share their dreams for the future. Shane McDaid (Jim Farrell) and Victoria Serra (Kate McGowan) as a pair push the number forward, and their sheer determination throughout the piece is heartwarming. During ‘The Proposal/The Night Was Alive’ we witness Bride (Matthew Crowe) and Barrett (Niall Sheehy) coming together to process a telegraph to Barrett’s bride-to-be. Crowe’s vocals are outstanding, but to be honest it is his commitment to the character and tenacity that draw you to him. Sheehy is also well cast as the gritty stoker and, although his diction lacks at points, he brings a stark, grounded contrast to the passengers.
Bringing the comic relief, Peter Prentice (Edgar Beane) and Claire Machin (Alice Beane) are a loving couple, forever playing with each other and disregarding all their airs and graces. Alice is forever wanting to sneak up to first class, whilst Edgar is not shy about saying what he thinks. Perfectly paired, Prentice and Machin bring some good old down-to-earth realism into this show and I think I cared about them the most. From the first number the young Bellboy (Luke George) catches our eye with his enthusiasm and this does not wane throughout. I am sure there is more to come from such a promising performer. James Gant as the steward Etches is everything you could want, never failing his passengers or the audience. Credit also has to be given to Rob Houchen (Fleet) who has relatively bitty parts, but I was left wanting more every time he sings.
Almost entirely sung-through, the composition could easily speak for itself. We are whipped from heartfelt to disaster in the change of a key. Stand-out numbers such as ‘Lady’s Maid’, ‘No Moon’ and ‘We’ll Meet Tomorrow’ speak of humanity and strike you straight in your heart. Yeston and Stones’s overlapping of vocals and repetition of melody is linked well as a reminder of each of the individual characters journeys and how they are so tenuously linked to each other in this moment. The musical staging (Cressida Carré) complements the score well, such as the repetition of a motif from the first number during the final epilogue. The beauty of theatre is not that we have to believe everything in front of us, it’s that we choose to believe it anyway. The majority of the piece pays homage to this idea, such as the lack of set change, stepping the cast out into the auditorium and the use of movement to illustrate events like the loading of the lifeboats. During the second half there are some cheap theatrical shots, such as attempted blackouts during the tipping of the ship. Nonetheless the set and costumes (David Woodhead) tie in with the lighting (Howard Hudson) and create a strong, seamless and impressive ship on stage.
Overall it is the score that keeps this epic show going and sways our emotions, not the performances. But with such a strong show from passionate performers, this is world class fringe theatre and a strong start to Thom Southerland’s first season.
Titanic is playing at the Charing Cross Theatre until 6 August. For more information and tickets, see the Charing Cross Theatre website. Photo: Scott Rylander