The Last Ship – Review – York Theatre Royal
By Roger Crow, June 2018
Those desperate for a Sting musical were probably hoping for a series of stitched-together classics; a romance, maybe a tragedy and a happy ending. It probably would have been called ‘Fields of Gold’, and could have centred on a Russian exchange student who lives on Bourbon Street, falls for a farmer and… well, it’s not hard to take the former Police man’s greatest hits and knock up a basic narrative.
What few people were desperate for was a musical inspired by his 1991 LP The Soul Cages, an album which opens with a mournful dirge of a track; boasts the elegant ‘All This Time’, and the wondrous ‘Mad About You’. It’s not classic Sting but it’s certainly not bad either.
The Last Ship features one of the best sets I’ve seen in any stage show. A beautifully crafted split-level affair with projections, gauze curtains and a gantry dominating proceedings. It successfully creates the effect of a Newcastle shipyard one minute, a living room the next, while flashbacks are expertly created. I could have stared at that set all night. In fact given the two hour 40 running time, I pretty much did.
“Vocals are outstanding”
The plot, based on the closure of a Swan Hunter shipyard, centres on a bunch of Geordie workers who are understandably gutted when they discover Utopia, the vessel they’re crafting, will be their last. In fact the government suits want to tear down the nearly finished craft for scrap. Talk about rubbing (sea) salt in the wound.
The essential love story centres on Gideon Fletcher, a dashing sailor who returns to the love of his life after 17 years; comes to terms with a past he never knew he had, and tries to win back his spurned love. Richard Fleeshman is terrific as Fletcher; at times he sounds so much like Sting, you’d think he was possessed by the man himself.
Frances McNamee as Meg Dawson, his old flame, is also phenomenal. Her vocals are outstanding, and every time they’re on stage together, the show is a bittersweet joy.
The shipworkers are mostly great. Joe McGann can carry a tune as Jackie White, the earnest husband trying to keep his head while all around him are losing theirs. There’s plenty of shouting and foot-stamping, and an awful lot of incoherent dialogue from a Tom Waits-style drunkard. His despair summing up the hopelessness of proud workers trying to earn a crust while bean-counters care more about cash than the staff. (Yes, it touches a chord, but I don’t need to be reminded of the fact every five minutes. Most of us live that life every day, thanks, Sting. Give us another song bonny lad).
For the most part The Last Ship is a fascinating curio; a rich man’s vanity project that comes from the heart and deserves kudos for not sailing down the obvious showbiz channel. I’m sure we’ll see that inevitable mash-up of Gordon Sumner classics at some point, and it will no doubt tick the same boxes as Queen’s We Will Rock You.
The Last Ship could do with trimming by 20 minutes; some of the dialogue needs full stops because it gets lost (like a podcast stuck on fast forward), and the finale feels more like a polemic than a drama. It gets so preachy in the last five minutes, any subtlety in the previous 2.5 hours may well have never existed. It’s like a comedian telling a shaggy dog story all night then explaining the punchline with a megaphone for the 12 people who might have missed the point.
I’d love to have seen the less political version that premiered in Chicago four years ago because this definitely needs to dial down its (understandable) anger.
However, full marks to cast and crew for giving their all. The message might not be subtle, and most of the songs are engaging but forgettable, but it’s got a big heart and soul, and that counts for a lot more than just another generic greatest hits musical.