Friday 18 October 2019

The Last Ship, Bord Gais Energy Theatre review: A Sting in the tale

Review: The Last Ship, Bord Gais Energy Theatre

Richard Fleeshman in The Last Ship
Richard Fleeshman in The Last Ship

Katy Hayes

This is a big anthemic musical with a stirring lefty breeze in its sails. The style is characterised by big choral numbers, some male-dominated, creating a musical homage to the world of manual labour that was decimated during the decline of Britain's industrial heartland and the smashing of the unions in the 1980s.

The music and lyrics by Sting are terrific: rousing at times, sweet and moving at others. As with all stories of trade-union struggles, the ghost of Maggie Thatcher hovers over the conflict, here in the person of a Baroness Tynedale, a perfidious government minister complete with pearls and handbag.

Gideon Fletcher (Richard Fleeshman, above) leaves Newcastle as a teenager, scorning his father's life in the shipyard, and becomes a naval officer. He returns after 17 years to find his old sweetheart Meg (Frances McNamee) has had a child, who is now a rebellious 16-year-old. Meg has made a successful independent life for herself. Gideon's father has died, and the shipyard is in the process of being shut down, the workers thrown on the scrapheap along with the decomissioned gun metal. Gideon now sees a dignity in the life he scorned when younger.

Director and book writer Lorne Campbell applies a detailed vision to the production, carefully fulfilling the expectations of a musical audience, but aiming sky-high in both moral aspiration and technical ambition.

Design by 59 Productions is first-rate. Industrial scaffolding is enhanced by gauze screens covered with projected scenic artistry, creating both kitsch wallpapered interiors, and more visually ambitious moments like stained-glass windows shattering, or a ship being launched. There is plenty of clever detail, including a recurring shadow motif of the central young couple dancing.

Movement director Lucy Hind favours ensemble dances of the stomp-and-gesture variety, which suits the material well. Hard-man labourers doing pirouettes can work (see Billy Elliot) but The Last Ship's aesthetic favours a gentle but committed machismo. The men are men, the women are strong. Choral singing is utterly pleasurable, with musical director Richard John confidently assembling a robust style to reflect the unsentimental nature of manual labour. The best voice, amongst a jewel box of outstanding voices, is Frances McNamee as grown-up Meg.

A scene reminiscing about Sunday school inside the Cathedral Church of St Mary's in Newcastle reminds us there is something of the choir here and a fair bit of preaching. The main character's name is the Biblical "Gideon". The ending monologue is a sturdy bit of Brechtian agitprop; it turns the story both in a global direction and in a more British one in support of the NHS. But top-class sermons can be mesmerising, and this is a thoroughly imagined, conceived and executed piece of protest drama. Sting joined the cast for the second curtain call on opening night in Dublin, and was greeted like the messiah. The music industry makes its own gods; occasionally they are preachers, too.


Plenty of magic in Kabul's high-flying kites

Khaled Hosseini's debut novel was a hit in 2003, became an international bestseller and created a global popular understanding of recent Afghani culture; this West End hit production now comes on an Irish tour.

It is about a pair of boys who grow up together in Kabul in pre-Taliban Afghanistan. Amir (Raj Ghatak) is the son of a wealthy businessman and an ethnic Pashtun, traditionally the ruling class. His servant Hassan (Jo Ben Ayed), who is the son of his father's servant, is a Hazara, an ethnicity that leaves him subject to widespread social discrimination and scorn. The play opens with Amir as a grown and married man living in San Francisco, getting a phone call that will lure him back to Afghanistan. Amir's adult life as a refugee in the US has been haunted by an incident in his youth where he betrayed Hassan. The betrayal started as a lack of moral courage but became a culpable and active injury of the younger boy. The phone call promises Amir an opportunity "for a way to be good again".

Matthew Spangler writes the adaptation, relying on Amir for narration and revolving the events around him. Director Giles Croft has an inventive approach, pacing the action adroitly and creating lots of entertaining detail. The kite flying episodes are particularly striking. Percussion musician Hanif Khan plays on stage throughout, making a huge contribution. An effective wind noise is created with spinning wooden instruments. The novel has been comprehensively conceived for the stage in all the visual and physical detail.

But aspects of the story feel very rushed; long sequences of events are reflected occasionally in exposition - there is no way around this in such a complex story. The telescoping of time renders some events overly melodramatic and sentimental. But despite these flaws, there is still plenty of theatrical magic in those airborne kites.

Continues June 12-16 in the Opera House, Cork and June 18-23 in the Grand Opera House, Belfast.




Abbey Theatre, Dublin June 11 - July 21

This neat adaptation of James Joyce's novel by Dermot Bolger is bound to be a summer crowd pleaser. Molly Bloom is placed at the centre of the story, and her bed at the centre of the stage. Comedy, puppetry and high-jinx, directed by Graham McLaren.


Everyman, Cork until June 23

Corkwoman Louise O'Neill's hit novel gets a stage makeover from adaptor Meadhbh McHugh and director Annabelle Comyn. Everyman Theatre smartly continues to groom the best of local writers to create a distinct regional flavour for the venue.


Viking, Clontarf until June 16

A surreal comedy by SR Plant about a taxidermist experiencing a personal and philosophical crisis as his business model is hitting rock bottom. Performed by Michael James Ford and Ruarí Heading, directed by Iseult Golden.


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