Friday, 9 August 2013

'Titanic' at the Southwark Playhouse

Last Friday Chris took me to see 'Titanic' the Maury Yeston musical from the late '90s that has never been staged in London before. It was first produced in New York nine months before the film of the same name was released and tells the stories of some of the real people on the ship and what happened to them.

We see the first class millionaires going aboard and returning to their lives in America, the second class wannabes from both sides of the Atlantic and the third class emigrants seeking a new life in the new world. And, of course, the ships' crew. Most of the actors played multiple roles and it was confusing at first to see the same person walk on as a first class passenger in one costume and, a few minutes later, as a third class one in a different costume, but it soon settled down. It seemed to work out fine.

Their personal tales start unfolding like the boiler-room engineer proposing to his girlfriend through the telegraph and young Kate from Ireland who's found herself in the family way and heads to America to start a new life. None of the first class passengers get any real characterisation, it's the second and third class folks we get to know. And the thing is that we know what's going to happen and they don't, but we don't know if the individuals will live or die, and that's what keeps the dramatic tension going.

There's a great score to the play, with most of the tale being told through songs. The show opens with songs about the magnificence of the ship, it's size and the amount of food going aboard to feed the passengers over the week to reach New York. They move onto songs about the passengers and their hopes and dreams and then songs about what happens to the ship.

My favourite was 'Lady's Maid', a song started by Kate who wants to be a lady's maid, another Kate who wants to be a seamstress and other characters wanting to be an engineer or a constable or, in one case, a millionaire. That song really touched me with the bright hopes of ordinary people taking their lives in their hands to travel to the other side of the world in search of a better life and yet their dreams are so mundane, wanting to be a servant or open a shop. It's a song about the human spirit and makes me wonder where people in this century will head to now that the great centuries long migration west has ended?

It's a musical that stimulates big thoughts and questions as well as telling a narrative of a story we're all familiar with.

The theatre is a bit of an oddity, with unallocated seating meaning that everyone queues up at the door beside the bar to get in, not a good start to the evening. We then walk past the designer of the Titanic sitting at a desk to get to our seats, with banks of seats on three sides of the stage. I know you're an 'alternative' theatre but allocated seating solves so many problems for us punters.

The sound wasn't terribly good when I saw it. The actors were all mic'd but, when they sang away from me, I had difficulty making out what they were singing. That wasn't really helped by some actors hitting all the right notes in the right order at the right time but forgetting about their diction so I couldn't make out what they were saying (yes, Greg Castliglioni, I'm talking to you here).

We were lucky enough to be there on a night when Maury Yeston gave a talk after the show and the sound problems continued. He seemed to be talking to one side of the audience only and wasn't mic'd so I missed a lot of what he said, but it was good to see him anyway. He co-wrote one of my favourite musicals, 'Grand Hotel', that is rarely played and it was nice to hear him refer to it.

All in all, I'm thinking of going back to see it again ...

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