Sometime in the late 1950s, obscure East German writer Günther Kähne published the short story Rekord an der Drahtstraße (I know this because I had to study it for German A level), a bizarre tale about a heroic factory worker who put in extra shifts and barely slept in order to achieve the personal highest output of any of his fellow wire-manufacturing colleagues. He did it all purely for the noble cause of working for the communal good of the nation. No thought of pay; no concern about how it affected his health or his family life; it was all to glorify the magnificence of Communist dogma. Well, it was East Germany after all.
Forward a couple of decades and observe life in Britain under Thatcher. The country she inherited was in a state; eleven years later she left it in a state, but a somewhat different one. Out went all the manufacturing industries that had been the bedrock of the nation’s economy; one of them was shipbuilding. The programme (and indeed the show) references Nicholas Ridley’s vision of denationalisation and promotion of the free market, which was just another dogma. Countless jobs and the living standards of millions were sacrificed to achieve this aim. Ridley, you’ll remember, was the man who defended the Poll Tax with the words “the squire pays the same as his gamekeeper, what could be fairer than that?” (or was it the Duke and the Dustman? Either way his vision is clear). People were angry – very, very angry.
Sting grew up in Wallsend, home of shipbuilding; saw the devastation of the decline of the industry and, as part of his fantastic career, wrote an album, The Soul Cages, in 1991, following the death of his father. I don’t know the album, but it’s inspired by the local traditions of going to sea and shipbuilding. Many years later it itself has become the basis and inspiration for his musical The Last Ship, which is finally coming in to dock in the UK on its current tour. (Nautical references… more of those later.)
There’s not a lot of story. On what appears to be no more than a whim, Gideon Fletcher ups and leaves town on a ship at the age of 17 leaving behind girlfriend Meg; he invited her to come too, but she declined. 17 years later he returns to find the local shipbuilding company has nearly finished building the Utopia, but they can’t find a buyer because it’s too expensive. The only solution to keep some jobs in the local economy is for the shipworkers to break it up and sell it as scrap. Offended by this prospect, not only because of the loss of jobs but primarily because they have built a beautiful thing that they can’t bear to see go to waste, the workers go on strike. I know from my own experience in the 1980s that strikes never had a positive outcome under that government, they just let you starve. In the meantime, Gideon discovers he’s a father to a resentful daughter he didn’t know about and a resentful ex-girlfriend who never told him he was a father. Eventually the shipbuilders decide to take matters into their own hands and complete the work on the Utopia for no payment – just so that it can “get launched”. Are you beginning to see the link with the Communist short story I mentioned earlier?!
There’s a lot of good in this production. But, for me, there was also a lot that I found hammy and unsubtle, which, in the final balance, considerably outweighed the good. But let’s concentrate on the good. Overall, visually, it’s an amazing spectacle. 59 Productions have created a glorious set that can recreate a ship, a dockyard, a church, and many other indoor locations. Odd thing #1: Projections onto screens turn a blank canvas into a room, a pub, a nightclub; but why were those projections deliberately fuzzy? The indistinct wallpaper in the White’s front room made me feel positively queasy. It also means that some of the actors sometimes had wallpaper patterns on their face. That’s not right, surely?
Even more majestic; the music. There’s a terrific, compact little band that ooze the folk traditions of the region. Fantastic to hear a melodeon being played; there’s no instrument like it, and I could have just listened to that all night. Odd thing #2: They’re playing at far stage left, nicely incorporated into the action without getting in the way. So what’s with the huge orchestra pit, sitting there empty, that’s been provided, and that required the removal of the front five rows of the stalls? Someone clearly didn’t get the memo. And the singing voices of the cast. Impeccable. The harmonies are extraordinary. They fill your heart with emotion and joy and carry you away. By the time I was about a quarter of the way in, I had already promised myself that I must buy the cast recording.
But there were other elements that really dogged me. It wasn’t helped that it took me at least fifteen to twenty minutes to get accustomed to the accents. It was fine in the speaking parts, but during much of the singing they could have been reciting la la la for all I could make out. My ears, my bad. I was also very bemused by the way Meg reacted to the return of Gideon. He’s clearly more sinned against than sinning, constantly getting the blame for ignoring the daughter he didn’t know he had. That’s kinda tough. Personally, I thought Meg was rather an unpleasant character, although I think we’re meant to warm to her… so that part of the story didn’t work for me.
But my big bugbear was the lyrics. Fair enough, this is a show about the shipbuilding industry in a shipbuilding town, and they’re building a ship. There is no end to the ship analogies, nautical allusions, harbour references, water clichés… No one finishes a plan, they reach their harbour. No one has a success, their ship comes in. No one finds a solution, they cry land ahoy. Are you getting my nautical drift? By the time they were wallowing in it in the second half I was feeling distinctly seasick. WE GET THE IDEA! Other metaphors are available!
It was also very preachy. The battle between the bad guys (the shipbuilding company owner and the pompous Baroness from the House of Lords – two excellent performances by Sean Kearns and Penelope Woodman) versus the good guys (everyone else) was seen in very black and white terms. It romanticised the Communist ideals of the workforce and their glorious effort in finishing the Utopia (that name’s not accidental) for free; fair enough, I guess, but, in a direct address to the audience, virtually out of character, the message was spread deeper and wider and I found myself resenting the cast telling me what I should feel about the NHS for example, or other areas of strife in the world. This felt less like a show and more like a rally. I’m a naturally left-wing slanted person, but this preachiness actually made me sympathise with the ruling classes, which isn’t something I’m used to. I hope I’m not turning into Quentin Letts.
Both the start of the show, and the start of the second half, begin with cast members wandering onto the stage, waving at the audience, chatting to people about their dress sense, etc. I’m sure it was meant to suggest equality between the cast and the audience, but it felt a bit patronising, a bit smug. There was never any question that we would be required to support the shipbuilders in this story; they assumed right from the start that we would be on their side. What does assume do? It makes an ass out of u and me. Correct.
The performances were all very good, even if some of the characters were rather irritating. Mrs Chrisparkle didn’t follow one word that Kevin Wathen’s drunken and belligerent Davey uttered all evening. He has the kind of voice that the late Sir Terry Wogan would have described as gargling with razor blades; he seemed almost to be a parody of a hard-nosed, hard-drinking Tynesider. Charlie Richmond gave a good performance as Adrian, but the character was immensely tedious, because every statement he made started with a quotation from literature. Rather like the seaside metaphors throughout, this was another unsubtle element.
Richard Fleeshman was very strong in the role of Gideon, and if his acting career ever goes wayward, he can always get a job fronting a Police Tribute Act. Is his singing voice naturally almost identical to Sting’s? Incredible if so. Otherwise it’s two and a half hours of very well-learned impersonation. There are also excellent performances by Charlie Hardwick as Peggy White (superb voice) and Joe McGann (surprisingly good voice) as Jackie White, both Labour-to-the-core old-timers.
Shiver me timbers, we never thought the second half was going to stop; talk about dragging the arse out of it. With beautiful melodies, amazing vocals, stunning musical arrangements and a set to die for, they created a both dogmatic and didactic blancmange of romanticised political hoo-ha. Earlier, I’d read a review that likened The Last Ship to Howard Goodall’s Hired Man. Mr Goodall should sue.
P. S. I decided against buying the cast album.
Production photos by Pamela Raith