A polemical play about Tyneside‘s shipyards is unlikely to sell out a much-loved Grand Theatre stage more accustomed to BBC1 dancers and Agatha Christie re-imaginations. Add a music superstar and a dusting of famous soap opera faces to the playbill, and you might stand at least a chance.
That was the rationale behind The Last Ship – a lengthy show that took three quarters of the story from Brassed Off and transplanted it up the A1 to Wallsend, stripping out colliery brass and plastering it instead with a score written by Sting, the North East‘s foremost contribution to UK music until Cheryl Tweedy met Simon Cowell.
Richard Fleeshman (Craig off Corrie) is Gideon, who took his knapsack and left Tyneside seventeen years ago to travel the world, leaving behind his teenage sweetheart Meg (Frances McNamee) — and a bundle of angst in her belly waiting to pop out into Thatcher‘s Britain. He arrives back on North Eastern shores as the ship workers of Wallsend are facing a doomed fight to save their yard, facing down management and Maggie–impersonator Baroness Tynedale, roused to direct action by a wise foreman whose health is failing (Joe McGann) and his proud wife (Charlie Hardwick; Val off Emmerdale). They are determined to do whatever it takes to finish the last ship, the Utopia, and set her out to sea in a poignant final act.
The acting is strong, with every single member of the cast pulling their weight and delivering damn good performances, but it’s not enough to outweigh the clunky script and lyrics. The Celtic seafaring tunes that open each half of the show set the scene pleasantly, but as soon as the very vintage Sting-y lyrics kicked in, I couldn’t help but cringe. For any musical, that’s a fundamental issue, let alone for one that trades on it’s A-list lyricist’s credentials. The only exception was If You Ever See Me Talking to A Sailor, a sharp, witty number as Meg unleashes her anger and battles inevitable latent feelings for Gideon when he turns up at the pub. Though it did feel like the musical love child of Chicago’s Cell Block Tango and Sting hit Roxanne…
The script has all the well–worn storylines of working–class lit; strong–willed lads and lasses battling to “escape” their limited provincial horizons; industrial strife in a “declining” industry. The problem is there are just too many of them – Richard Fleeshman‘s Gideon successfully escaped; now his estranged daughter is desperate to do the same. And if you didn‘t understand the central political tenets of the play then fortunately the chirpy narrator is on hand to provide speeches about the National Health Service at key junctures. The Utopia may have sailed, but The Last Ship feels something of an incomplete vessel.
Rosie writes for Leeds Living on food and drink, health, beauty, culture and retail.