Music and Lyrics by Maury Yeston
Book by Peter Stone
Watching the ever-enduring history of the Titanic passenger liner in this musical, which originally opened several months before the 1997 release of the Oscar winning movie, a thought began to form. What if this version of the famous story, music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, book by Peter Stone, had bundled together echos of other tales of overweening pride snd technological innovation followed by disaster?
For whatever the truth about the Titanic, and the musical follows a traditional trajectory taking on board what may be newspaper embellishments and legal fictions of the official enquiry's many vested interests, this is an archetypal Icarus story.
It charts the history of the passenger ship's ill-fated transatlantic journey when it hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage in 1912 with the loss of over 1,500 lives. Meanwhile the chairman of the company who was on board, Bruce Ismay (a sonorous David Bardsley) lived on to be cast in real life as the villain of the piece, an Icarus who survived.
From the start in the Yeston/Stone version, the over-confident executive boasts the qualities of the new ship as much for competitive commercial reasons as pride - a floating city to compare with the wonders of the world, but unlike them, soon to be set free from its moorings to sail the ocean.
Nevertheless listening closely to Yeston's lyrics and Stone's book, there were delicate echoes of other stories. Fritz Lang's movie tale of technology run rampant, Metropolis and HG Wells's stock exchange fable,Tono-Bungay with the talk of "cornering the market".
Or maybe (should we whisper it?) even the perilous and expensive act of putting on a full-scale new musical underpinned by a crazy paving of financial, intertwined with artistic, interests - and a possible closing night blame game.
The current run is a revival of director Thom Southerland's 2013 Southwark Playhouse production, a cut-down chamber version of the original musical with a seven man (and woman).band of strings and percussion and a 20-strong cast, some of whom double up.
David Woodhead's two tiered set of riveted metal panelling, white railings and laddered crow's nest on wheels ingeniously also uses both the stage and circle balcony to evoke the sides and different decks of the luxurious ship. We are in the midst of a vessel's first voyage from Southampton but also what had become a habitual journey for the ultra rich and a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the moderately well-off and those, mostly poor, seeking new lives in America.
Yet the musical is also a waterlogged dream, as conjured up by the smoke gray blue rivetted panels, plus the grainy lighting (Howard Hudson) poking through the portholes and the eerie ship's hums and rumbles (sound by Andrew Johnson) in the opening moments.
The ship's builder Thomas Andrews (Siôn Lloyd) sits calmily perusing his blueprints of the Titanic's brave new world for all those seeking the fruits of an age of progress, where the future could only be larger, cleaner, faster.
The lives of those on board are brought to the fore, with their own ties to land, either in solos, duets or choral set pieces. There's the miner Barrett (Niall Sheehy), who could have stepped out of a DH Lawrence novel, turned ship's stoker. He finds an unlikely ally in the perfectionist Marconi wireless operator Bride (Matthew Crowe).
The latter who out of kindness and pride in his work, but maybe also in an unwitting revelation about the Royal Mail contracted ship, offers Barrett a hundred percent "commercial discount" to send a message back to his girlfriend. This culminates in a delightful duet as he translates Barrett's love letter into Morse code dots and dashes.
It felt to us by sticking to the stories which circulated about the sinking, whether true or not, the feel of the instability of the legend comes through. The First Officer Murdoch (Scott Cripps), the second in command and on the bridge when the ship struck the iceberg, confessed near the beginning to shying away from commanding a vessel because of the responsibility involved.
The captain (Philip Rham), the master of the ship, who holds the lives of those on the Belfast-built vessel in the palm of his hand, and despite forbidding alcohol on the bridge, seems increasingly sucked into the louche partying on board and loses, literarally and metaphorically, his bearings. Yet it is Murdoch who takes the blame, as if he were bailing out water on one side, little knowing it would pour in on another, and he ends his life as if he were a guilty man.
With memorable work from the wide-eyed steward Etches (James Gant), social climbing but startling realistic Alice Beane (Claire Machin) and the three "Kates", Irish immigrant girls (Victoria Serra, Jessica Paul and Scarlett Courtney), there is a high standard of singing, acting and dancing (musical stager Cressida Carré) from all the cast.
The world of brash overconfidence, the super wealthy, the aspirational poor looking towards a land of opportunity still exists. The stirring symphonic score spans twentieth century musical styles with hints of Gilbert and Sullivan, Irving Berlin, Rogers & Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim amongst others.
The angle on the well-known story presented in the musical Titanic still inhabits a recognizable world in our post 9/11, post Concorde, post credit crunch, post invasion twenty first century age. Even if it may be hubris to think that a mere musical carries such a heavy burden.
The book of almost documentary precision highlights how keeping to the story as reported, can, in a very natural way, reflect on other man-made events and disasters the audience knows to be in the future. A green light for a thoughtful and resonant ensemble piece.