The Last Ship – Review – Leeds Grand Theatre
By Ginger Bailey, May 2018
The Last Ship, a musical set in the Tyneside Docklands and surrounding streets, tells the story of a proud community of dock workers and their need to survive. Written by Sting and first produced in 2014 to sell out shows in Chicago, before transferring to Broadway, the show has been given a new lease of life by Northern Stage.
Naturally, as perhaps it should rightly have been in the first place, the show set sail from Newcastle and now finds itself docked at The Grand in Leeds with some familiar cast members.
The musical draws on Sting’s childhood experiences of living by the Docklands and is inspired by his 1991 album, The Soul Cages. It seems he felt the need to tell the story of the community he left behind and pay homage to the people that worked and lived in that community. In Sting’s own words: “I wanted to give the community where I was born a voice… it’s a kind of debt that I feel I owe.”
“Time of unease”
The show introduces some wonderful characters, including Gideon and Meg, two young lovers at a stage in their lives when the world is open to them, and Peggy and her foreman husband Jackie White. Gideon decides he needs to escape his pre-set future of working in the Docks and pleads with Meg to leave with him. Sensible Meg declines the invite and pleads with Gideon not to act so hastily. Gideon has other ideas and promises to come back soon for Meg.
Indeed he does, 17 years later. As one can expect, Gideon’s return is met frostily by Meg. Furthermore, he has returned at a time of unease and change in the community he left behind, though he is met warmly by Mr and Mrs White as she mischievously encourages Gideon to go along to the pub later on that day. Unbeknown to Gideon, Meg is now the landlady of the pub and is the mother of, yes you guessed it, a 16-year-old daughter called Ellen.
Gideon is going to be in for a shock when he finds out. Meanwhile, the Tory government is shutting down the shipyards and nothing is going to stop them. Not even a nearly newly built ship. Instead the proposal by MP Baroness Tynedale (a good mimic of Baroness Thatcher) during a meeting to discuss the future of the dockyards, is to dismantle the nearly finished ship for parts.
This horrifying news is met with anger by the workers and plans are set in place to strike and refuse to engage in any talks about the changes suggested by the MP and the ship dock owner. There is heartache along the way, but no time for mourning when there is work to do.
The singing is superb and an actor’s dream, especially for Charlie Hardwick (better known as Val from Emmerdale) playing Peggy and Francis McNamee playing the adult Meg. They have some wonderful solo moments and have the opportunity to showcase their outstanding voices. Very impressive – as, indeed, is Richard Fleeshman’s Gideon, sounding very much like Sting. The large cast look as though they are having a wonderful time and no wonder, being involved in such an excellent production.
The set is outstanding and utilises visuals to seamlessly change the background between each scene. We see a wonderful windswept dock, we see the bow of a huge ship, we see the rood tops of the terrace houses, we see the inside of a church and the magnificent stained glass windows. Breathtaking.
Certainly the breadth and scale of the production, alongside the terrific performances and singing make it a musical worth seeing, whether you’re a Sting fan or not. But if this show is eventually remembered as the singer’s lasting tribute to the people and places he grew up, then it’s a worthy one indeed.