New Book and Direction by by Lorne Campbell
Music & Lyrics by Sting
A Mirvish Presentation at the Princess of Wales Theatre
Opened February 19, 2019
Reviewed by Maria Heidler
Hear Ye! Hear Ye! Sting – that “Englishman in New York” – is now in Toronto at the Princess of Wales Theatre, and starring in his personal homage to his hometown of Wallsend in North East England and to the ship-building community that formed him. The Last Ship is inspired by his 1991 album The Soul Cages and opened in Chicago in 2014, moving to Broadway for a three-month run. Although nominated for 2 Tonys, it was not a financial success. He re-worked it and it opened to great acclaim back in the U.K. in the port city of Newcastle upon Tyne. Then followed a U.K. tour, and it was in Dublin that David Mirvish saw the production and arranged for Sting to bring it to Toronto where, back in 1978 with his band The Police, he’d played The Horseshoe Tavern and The Edge. How would this tale from 1986 Britain fare in 2019 Toronto?
The set is a triptych of tension with two staired pylons dividing a vast expanse of industrial wall. Above, ominous clouds make their way across the sky and yet, to one side, a group of six musicians laugh amongst themselves. Then the actors amble on, chatting, then waving at audience members. They shout out greetings and the audience responds. We Are One! The atmosphere of solidarity is set. The Tale begins. The cast sing an anthem of their lives. It is who they are and why they are. It ends on a chord of hope – but we are soon to be enveloped in that triptych of tension.
Three story arcs evolve: 1) The fight against the death of the ship-building industry and a community’s livelihood. 2) The fight against death in the human body. 3) The fight to prevent a re-opening of the wound of desertion. Director and book-writer, Lorne Campbell, skillfully entwines these stories, which span back across seventeen years, with a flow of cinematic projections that evoke a world both foreign yet somehow universally familiar. Sting’s music and lyrics are both witty and poignant with strong references to a culture deeply rooted in its folk origins. This is supported by the use of a melodeon in the orchestration and by rhythms of jigs and waltzes.
The cast are a superb unit portraying the many hurdles a community has to face when the world as they know it is about to end. Among them there is the carpenter poet (Marc Akinfolarin) who freely quotes from Greek Mythology to Dylan Thomas; the Union boss (Joe Caffrey) who quotes Tennyson; the town drunkard (Kevin Wathen) who “can’t afford to go on strike!”; the Foreman (Sting) who, in spite of illness, tries to keep a cool head when all about are losing theirs; Gideon – both the radgie (crazy) teenager (Barney Wilkinson) and the adult (Oliver Savile) who returns to his home after 17 years of pursuing his dream to find he has a daughter, Ellen (Sophie Reid), by his erstwhile girlfriend Meg (young:Jade Sophia Vertannes/adult: Frances McNamee); and the Shipyard Owner (Sean Kearns) who uses Government Policy to justify his demands.
We are taken through the various roads of negotiation and defiance involving both the men and the women (Gideon living up to his Biblical name by finally becoming a leader of men!) until the workers take matters into their own hands and complete the building of the doomed ship (ironically named “Utopia”). So…all’s well that ends well (the play is littered with delicious aphorisms)…or is there a “sting” in the tale? Unfortunately – Yes! In keeping with the triple theme, I got stung thrice! 1: The Foreman dies before the ship is launched and there is a scene with his coffin on the stage as his widow Peggy, (played with strength and dignity by Jackie Morrison) courageously insists on pursuing his sense of purpose. This felt maudlin and contrived, and the scene would have benefited without the presence of the coffin. 2: The “Geordie” accent is one of the most musical yet challenging of British accents to portray on stage. A lot of fine vocal work was wasted through lack of diction and/or sound quality. 3: The piece is too long. It would lose none of its power to cut 30 minutes out of it. “Time and tide wait for no man!”