They say that ‘first impressions count’, and I can honestly say that my instant reaction to the opening few bars of The Last Ship was ‘wow what a sound’! I found myself trying to rationalise why the quality of the sound had made such an impression on me – were these particularly exceptional singers, are the acoustics in this auditorium better than other venues or could it be that I just don’t hear live music often enough? In fact – is this actually live music or just a high quality backing track – I couldn’t actually see anyone playing an instrument other than an upright piano to the right of the stage. A momentary wave of disappointment crept over me….but this musical was written by Sting – surely he wouldn’t put his name to a production with no live music? I was distracted again by the voices and allowed the sound to wash over me as I took in the atmosphere. It was well into the second or even third scene when I finally spotted the musicians – seated on the stage, behind the piano lurking in the shadows of the set. By the end of the production I had decided that the phenomenal sound was a combination of all three elements – there are some absolutely exceptional singers in this cast, the auditorium does have great acoustics and yes there really is a huge positive difference between the immersive experience of listing to live music in a theatre versus the usual way I consume music these days – the digital radio in my car or occasionally on a mini-speaker around the house. Note to self next time I am procrastinating about buying theatre tickets – yes it is definitely worth paying for live theatre when you can!
I hadn’t paid a great deal of attention to the set. It’s not the first production I’ve been to with a fairly dark, industrial looking set composed of a few ladders and girders (Rent in London many years ago, springs to mind for example) – but obviously for a musical set in a ship yard in the North East of England it was at least appropriate. I found the set oppressive and dark – it looms menacingly over the action and the audience and I longed to see out over the top of the ship’s hull and find a horizon or the mouth of the river and expanse of sea that you know are out there from the songs. The entire story unfolds in the shadow of the huge ship which dwarfs everything around it, and therefore perfectly reflects the dominance of the ship yard in the life of the town and its people. In fact it was so atmospheric I honestly thought I could smell hot metal for a second when the welding sparks began to fly. My message to the set designers? Job well done!
So what of the story and the cast? A simple enough tale – childhood sweethearts, he grabs the opportunity to escape the oppressive predictability of life in the town and she has little option but to stay. 17 years later he returns after the death of his father, assuming all will be as he remembers including the girl he left behind, and having finally made up his mind that he wants her. Unsurprisingly to all but him – things are not quite as he remembers. Meanwhile of course the ship yard workers worst fears are realised when they get a visit from the yard owner and the ‘Thatcheresque’ Minister from the Department of Trade & Industry informing them that the sale of the half-finished ship has fallen through due to cheaper competition overseas. It’s a familiar tale, especially here in South Wales where the heavy industries have suffered similar fate, so there is a lot of resonance for local audiences who may have seen the demise of their own, once thriving, home towns as the single biggest source of employment ground to a halt.
Joe McGann quickly establishes himself as a credible likeable, respected foreman of the yard. His stature and demeanour is strong, steady and serious but softened by his soft, singing voice – a little rough around the edges compared to the polished tones of some of the cast members – but he’s a ship builder what do you expect? Knowing of her only through Emmerdale, I confess to having no idea that Charlie Hardwick could sing, but boy can she?! A very believable portrayal of a strong woman standing behind her man and coming out in support of the cause (no matter how lost) when required – well it was the 80’s!
In the words of my guest for the evening, Richard Fleeshman was absolutely ‘spot on’ (as she gave me a knowing sideways glance). She’s not wrong though. For me, a Sting fan for many years, I was not disappointed with Fleeshman’s delivery of Sting’s songs old and new. I don’t know much about his previous roles and have never heard him sing before, but he either has, or has successfully adopted, Sting’s breathy, restrained style which I loved. Right at the point where other musical theatre singers would build to a mighty power-ballad crescendo, and some of us might wince, Fleeshman holds back but still sings with power and lyricism. If like me, you love this about Sting’s voice and style, you’ll love Fleeshman’s vocal performance. Oh and for a power-ballad crescendo that definitely won’t make you wince – I give you Frances McNamee! There was a palpable intake of breath from the audience around me as Frances opened her mouth for the first time. Clearly this cast has been selected to deliver music and vocal versatility that its demanding writer can be very proud of. I’m not the type of person who goes back and sees the same production multiple times – but if I was offered another chance to see this again – I really think I’d go.
Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
14th – 19th May 2018