BWW Review: TITANIC, Charing Cross Theatre, June 6 2016
If you call your musical Titanic, then you're up against a big ship, a big film and a big myth - so you'd better have a big show! Fortunately, that's exactly what Thom Southerland has, reviving his successful 2013 production having sailed it across the river from Southwark Playhouse to the Charing Cross Theatre.
And what an ocean-going liner of a show it is! On David Woodhead's wonderfully evocative set comprising so many steel railings and staircases that one can feel the tang of salt on one's lips, a tremendous ensemble cast play the crew and passengers of the ill-fated ship. And for a show that's in the West End but not charging West End prices, the costumes alone are worth the entrance fee.
While the posh first-class passengers - New York socialites and industrialists - enjoy obsequious service, the second-class travellers look in on the difference between having thousands and having millions and the third-class hoi polloi dream of new lives in America - the land of opportunity. Thrown together in a floating city, they never quite connect - even when it comes to abandoning ship. They do, however, show the rigid stratification of society that survived even the First World War, just two years away.
Meanwhile, White Star Line owner Ismay is fingered as the villain of the piece, his urging of more speed and a shorter route to save time overcoming Captain Smith's half-hearted objections as he steered the "unsinkable" ship into its cataclysmic collision with the iceberg. There's a touching moment when, all hope lost, the captain asks his bellboy his age - 14, is the reply. The cruel sea had pity for no-one - except, perhaps, Ismay, who found a seat on a lifeboat, but no place in polite society.
Peter Stone's detailed and engaging book weaves these various tales in and out of a narrative that loses nothing just because we know the outcome. We quickly learn to care about the Irish girls with their dreams in the New World; the stokers escaping from the mines of England only to find conditions much the same in the boilerhouses; the lovers en route to a marriage disapproved of by England's aristocracy, whose writ did not run across the Atlantic; of the ageing businessman who really just wanted to be with his ageing wife, come hell or high water. There's a lovely moment too when the telegraph operator sends a message home for a stoker, the normal rules of commerce not applying quite so rigorously at sea.
Maury Yeston's music and lyrics are more Sondheim than Bart, with individual songs subsumed below extravagant, elongated musical passages in which singing (uniformly excellent and, mercifully in this venue, sensitively amplified) and melodies work perfectly to drive the plot, but also to reveal emotions. You probably won't come out singing a favourite tune, but you'll be bowled over by the harmonies in particular, though there are plenty of intimate moments to savour too.
Amongst the cast, James Gant gives a lovely performance as First Class Head Steward Etches, brave and decent, but not above sneaking what's left in a champagne flute. David Bardsley creates a ruthless Ismay and opens the show, setting the singing standard to follow. Claire Machin is a marvellous comic turn as social climber Alice Beane, in magnificent voice throughout, with plenty of Hyacinth Bucket for us to enjoy.
I'd heard lots of good things about this show from those who saw it in 2013, and one always worries that a revival in a new venue will somehow shed the alchemy that makes musical theatre work. I needn't have - this ship sails into port triumphantly, on course for a West End smash!
Titanic is at the Charing Cross Theatre until 6 August.