“Possibly she won’t go down
Possibly she’ll stay afloat
Possibly all this could come to an end
On a positive note…”
Between them, producer Danielle Tarento and director Thom Southerland have been responsible for some of London’s best small-scale musical revivals of recent years, so it was with interest that their production of the 1997 show Titanic was announced as the Southwark Playhouse’s first musical in its new premises. It won Tony Awards though little critical favour on Broadway, yet timed itself well to ride on the coat-tails of the extraordinary success of James Cameron’s film of the same story which opened some six months later. And as such an enduringly popular tale, Maury Yeston’s music and lyrics and Peter Stone’s book thus have much to battle against to make its own mark.
Based on real passengers and the accounts of survivors, Stone’s book focuses in on a number of couples travelling in different parts of the boat, which means that the emphasis lands heavily on the class divisions onboard. A decent decision one might think but in populating the worlds of first class, second class and third class, all within the first half, the show already feels doomed to sink. There’s just simply too many characters for us to process, never mind genuinely empathise with, and though a hard-working ensemble strive excellently to differentiate their various characters (with some surely sterling backstage help) it does take a while to be entirely sure who is who.
And with the respectful imposition of not too much fictionalisation, the script thus finds itself far too laden with portentous pronouncements – “my new life has begun”, “God himself couldn’t sink this ship”, “the hull and keel impervious…”. The lack of dramatic impetus to a story we all know wouldn’t be half as much as a problem if there was an engaging story being told alongside it but this show never provides us with that, instead preferring the generic sentiments of songs like ‘What a Remarkable Age This Is’ which first class celebrate their uniqueness.
Maury Yeston’s score has several moments of melodic grace but ultimately is too patchy to ever fully engage our emotions. The opening sequence is extraordinary – Southerland marshalling company and band to magnificent effect in the stirring ‘Godspeed Titanic’, but this is then followed by an odd number about the East Midlands miners now working in the engine room, accompanied by some questionable interpretative dance with shovels. Likewise, the beautiful ‘Lady’s Maid’, about the various hopes and dreams of the third class passengers, has its impact washed away by a bland duet between one or another of the various couples.
Even what ought to be one of the most affecting moments – the loading of the lifeboats – is fudged. The scene becomes a cacophony, both musically and narratively, competing vocal lines crashing against the too-loud music and the confusion about exactly who is who meaning that the emotional impact of the cruel separations just wasn’t there for me. Where the production is much more touching is in the quieter moments – the enduring strength and devotion of older couple Ida and Isidor, Judith Street and Dudley Roger’s duetting beautifully on Still, the wry humour of Matthew Crowe’s telegraph officer, and the stoic pragmatism of ever-present butler Etches, James Hume excellent throughout whether terrifying junior waiters on matters of etiquette or proffering a glass of Cristal even as the ship sinks.
The final moments of the show also rankled a little as a series of facts about the tragedy are recited in a music-free segment of forced gravitas, managing to exemplify the shortcomings of this particular form to do the job that Yeston and Stone are seeking to achieve. Musical theatre can do many things, anything even, if harnessed in the right way but for me, this uneasy mix of historical documentary and determined tear-jerker falls short of either telling an effective story or delivering musical sophistication. The strength of its cast and the mostly assured direction of Southerland mean that these shortcomings are far less in evidence in this production but it is still just treading water in a 25 m pool rather than gliding gracefully across the ocean.