A returning local lad made good; an industrial crisis; a community rallying round; a sob story; a love story. With a veritable box-set marathon of similar films hitting screens in the 90s it might seem as if Sting has missed the boat with The Last Ship, a musical that blends post-industrial disaster with indomitable Northern spirit, but this production feels fresh.
Anticipating a life of danger, hardship and boredom in the shipyard – the only life most locals know – Wallsend lad Gideon escapes Tyneside and his girlfriend for a life in the navy. Returning 17 years later he finds the yard facing closure, the last hulking ship unfinished in dry dock, a community facing devastation and a surprise from his erstwhile lover.
The love story may be between Gideon – surely an analogue for Sting and played convincingly by Richard Fleeshman – and his fiery ex-girlfriend Megan – but there’s a parallel narrative that tracks the varying fortunes of the shipyard workers that emphasises how vital employment was in gluing together the fabric of society.
Joe McGann’s Jackie White is the foreman of the yard – in many ways the father of the community but one who is ailing just as the North-East’s fabled industry is facing its end. He might as well be a totem for generations of Northern men: decent, humble, loyal and reliable. When we see what the prospect of unemployment does to these men it’s heart-rending.
The Last Ship is one of the most sumptuous productions to be seen at the Playhouse for some time. A gigantic set gives us a good impression of the mighty ships, while back projection really expands out sense of place and space. It also means the set can be easily cast as a shipyard, a cathedral, even a lounge.
Meanwhile the addition of a full band sitting in the rarely-used orchestra pit at the theatre projects a wall of sound that is immersive, even if it sometimes drowns out some of the solo voices.
The Last Ship is also a useful that reminder that while Sting is an easy target for ridicule, his music is often affecting and distinctive. The cast carry it well here, particularly Frances McNamee as Meg Dawson and Richard Fleeshman who, it’s fair to say, listened to Sting in finding his voice.
Perhaps most affecting are Joe McGann’s half-sung, half-spoken lines from The Soul Cages, the concept album that has provided much of the emotional ballast of The Last Ship. And there’s plenty of it.
The Last Ship seems at once like a lament for the North-East and a celebration and it’s that duality that commands attention. If ever things threaten to get sappy there’s a cold, hard dose of reality behind it; when things look bleak there’s the same Geordie humour to which Scousers can no doubt relate.
To no little surprise The Last Ship works as musical, a love story and a play about anarcho-syndicalism on a Tyneside shipyard. If that sounds glib then there’s a handy reminder that all this stuff actually happened, albeit perhaps not on Tyneside and perhaps not quite in the way described.
But when the play ends with a plea, a demand for solidarity it becomes nothing less than a rallying cry for socialism. As the Utopia – the huge, last ship completed by the unemployed men as a symbol of hope, pride, solidarity – hits the water it’s a punch-the-air moment.
The triumph of the Wallsend community is matched by that of the production. Shattering, uplifting and so very entertaining, the standing ovation was universal.
The Last Ship
Until Saturday 14 April