Titanic The Musical – Review – Hull New Theatre
By Rachel Howard, May 2022
Putting the story of a real-life tragedy to music and presenting it on stage isn’t something new. Evita, the story of the Argentine political leader Eva Perón, is just one show that has been immensely successful in its portrayal of a tragic story. So I have high hopes as I take my seat at Hull New Theatre for the opening night of another real-life event set to music – Titanic The Musical.
The story of Titanic is so well known that I’m intrigued as to how it will keep the audience invested for a full evening. Having read up a little beforehand, I know this isn’t a remake of the 1997 James Cameron film, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. So there’ll be none of the familiar Celine Dion soundtrack, and no tragic love story of Jack and Rose. So just what will the next couple of hours hold?
As the curtain raises, we’re met with a vast set portraying the Southampton docks, and the deck of the luxury liner – cleverly arranged so as to make the audience feel they are among the passengers taking their first, expectant steps onto the “largest moving object in the world”.
The first half of the show is spent setting the scene, introducing us to various characters in different classes, all of whom have different reasons for boarding Titanic to the new world. We have the aristocrats in first class, arriving with their entourage of staff, luggage, and even pets. They’re mostly heading to New York to further their social standing and increase their already sizeable fortunes. Then there’s second class, including a couple pretending to be married, running off to start a new life together in the Big Apple. Finally, we have third class – where we all know the majority of the tragedy plays out. We follow an Irish couple who meet as they board, quickly deciding to start their new American lives together; and the engine-room staff, working flat out and following orders that they know could end in catastrophe.
There is an air of hope and expectation among all passengers, showcased by a cast of talented actors, singers and musicians, but of course, there is an air of foreboding among the audience as we await their certain fates.
Holding the story together are the characters of J. Bruce Ismay (Martin Allanson), chairman and managing director of the White Star Line; Captain Edward Smith (Graham Bickley); and shipbuilder and architect of Titanic, Thomas Andrews (Ian McLarnon). All three actors powerfully bring their characters to life as they pit safety against speed. Ismay is the devil on the shoulder of Captain Smith, constantly pushing him to increase the speed so he can claim the record for the fastest crossing, clashing with the Captain and Andrews, who know all-too-well the limitations of the vessel, and the potential disaster that the lack of lifeboats could bring.
Despite the great performances, the first half is somewhat dragged out. We all know the iceberg is coming, and the sense of apprehension turns a little to frustration as we wait for the inevitable strike. However, when it does come, it’s dramatic and loud, which contrasts hugely with the air of silence and shock that descends over the audience.
The second half is shorter, and in many ways more fulfilling to watch. The tragedy plays out with a clever combination of music and lighting. In fact, I think the lighting designer, Howard Hudson, deserves a special mention as it’s a long time since I’ve seen lighting used so effectively in a show. The dull almost monochrome hues depict poverty, hopelessness and a sense of desperation; colour is injected into the world of the first class passengers, illustrating wealth, hope, opportunity and luxury; and an orange glow highlights the hot and gruelling world of the engine-room staff.
As the enormity of the situation hits both passengers and crew, we see the class distinctions prove to be the horrific difference between life and death, and the story builds to its final, tragic conclusion. It is fascinating to consider how different people would react to such a tragedy – some trying to get off the stricken ship as quickly as possible with no thought for others, while many held on to assist fellow passengers and crew, ultimately giving their lives on that fateful day in 1912. We are even witness to a crew member making the heartbreaking decision to shoot himself before the ship goes down. It’s heart-wrenching stuff and doesn’t make for an easy watch.
But then this isn’t an easy story – it’s a real-life tragedy, and I think that’s where I struggled with this production. Perhaps there’s a downside to a show that is based on an event that is so historically infamous and painful… Theatre is different things to different people, but I think I require something more positive and upbeat from a show.
But there’s no denying the talent on show here in Hull this week. It is a superbly made production, and the audience reaction, particularly to the emotional scenes at the end, proves that it was thoroughly enjoyed by the vast majority of those who took the voyage back in time alongside me.
‘Titanic the Musical’ is at Hull New Theatre until 3rd June