The 68-year-old Sting (Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner) has sailed into the Ahmanson on the politically-minded “The Last Ship.” Focusing on a British union crisis from the past, the play begs you to think about the fate of the common man, but you might be able to ignore the social implications and concentrate on the modern Odyssey love story or enjoy the Celtic influenced music.
Sting wrote the music and lyrics to a new book by Lorne Campbell (original Book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey). Fans of Sting from either his time with the new wave rock band the Police (1977-1984) or his solo artist years, will hear Sting’s signature in the score. The story is based upon Sting’s own experiences growing up in the town of Wallsend, Northumberland.
Wallsend is at the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall and thus the name. The wall was a defensive fortification begun in 122, during the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian. Running 73 miles, it was the northern limits of the Roman Empire and some of it still stands today. The Wallsend shipbuilder, Swan Hunter, built the RMS Mauretania, a ship that held the record for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic for 22 years. RMS Carpathia, the ship that rescued the surviving passengers of the Titanic, was also build in Wallsend by Swan Hunter. Earlier in its history, Wallsend was a coal mining town and the musical “The Last Ship,” references the troubles that coal miners experienced in the 1980s.
Wallsend is 3.5 miles from the Newcastle city center and is a metropolitan borough of North Tyneside while Newcastle is a city. The program notes that the first shipyard on the River Tyne was building ships for Edward I of England in 1294. There was a time when Newcastle was one of the largest shipbuilding and repair centers in the world. The “new” castle of the city’s name, is now quite old, built in 1080 for the eldest son of William the Conqueror, Robert Curthose.
Ships were needed to build the British empire, but between 1920 to 1933, 38 shipyards closed in the North East. Many shipyards came back and were nationalized between 1938 to 1950 to help the war effort against Nazi Germany. The program notes also indicate that “major national industries” in steel, coal and shipbuilding were privatized in 1986 under prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government. In 1988, the Neptune Yard in Newcastle, the last shipyard of the Swan Hunter Company, closed.
In “The Last Ship,” Sting plays Jackie White, the foreman of the Newcastle shipyard. He attempts to get his union to come to terms with the government, represented by Baroness Tynedale (Annie Grace). Jackie has a secret, only known to his wife, Peggy White (Jackie Morrison); he’s dying. Their love story, however, is only secondary to the one between Gideon Fletcher (Oliver Saville) and business woman Meg Dawson. As a young man (Joseph Peacock as the young Gideon), Gideon romanced the 16-year-old Meg (Jade Sophia Vertannes), but with a few lies, the underaged Gideon joined a ship crew and sailed away, not returning until now, 17 years later. Soon enough Gideon seeks out his sweetheart, Meg (now Frances McNamee).
As you can imagine, with no phone calls, no letters and no visits during those years, Meg grew bitter as her belief in Gideon’s promise to return slowly disintegrated. Gideon didn’t even return for his own father’s funeral. Meg now owns companies, including the local pub favored the the shipbuilders. Living above the bar, Meg isn’t alone. She has a daughter, the rebellious Ellen (Sophie Reid) and you can probably guess who the father is.
The comparison of Meg to the faithful Queen Penelope of Ithaca who waited two decades for her husband Odysseus to return is built into this musical’s book with one character, the ship carpenter Adrian Sanderson, quoting classic poetry. Odysseus didn’t have the advantage of phones and the Royal and international postal services. There’s a boundary between faithful and foolhardy, but if you believe in true love and one-and-only matches, then you’ll be able to fathom this romance a little better.
The title refers to the only ship that remains in the shipyard. The Baroness and the business leaders want to scrape it because “this industry must evolve.” How isn’t clear because the cost of shipbuilding is much cheaper in places like Korea. Remember so much of the British Empire was fueled by monies made from opium grown in India and sold in China. Now karmic cycle comes back as the shipbuilding industry moves away to East Asia or is replaced by other forms of transportation. The shipbuilders are warned, “Don’t make the same mistake as the miners.” They’re offering 500 jobs to 2,000 workers. Those jobs are not for skilled workers because scraping doesn’t require it–that means less money.
The shipbuilders want to finish this last ship. Jackie warns, “They say we can’t swim against the tide of history,” and yet he stirs up local pride because this is a story about a place and its people and we know that the shipbuilders didn’t win. Yet small victories count. They can stall the takeover and finish a ship named “Utopia.” While politicians are trying to placate these workers with the so-called “trickle down effect,” the shipbuilders union members rise to the slogan “Our change doesn’t trickle down; it rises up.”
The lighting by Matt Daw and the production design by 59 Productions uses screens and projections to effectively transport us to different parts of the city. There’s a particularly effective segment when Gideon is at his family home, remembering his father, Old Joe Fletcher (Sean Kearns), and his father seems to fade away. Under director Lorne Campbell, some of the staging seems stilted, but one wonders if this is because Campbell knows from the show’s history that the main draw is Sting.
The program provides a helpful glossary of “Geordie” terms used. While the “broadest of the accents” is not being used, the production wanted to retain “some of the wonderful sound and words of the North East.” Patrons sitting behind me mentioned during the 20-minute intermission that they at first had a hard time understanding the dialogue during the first act, but with time began understanding most of the conversations. One person wished for “subtitles” and another for “supertitles.” Why not? They do this for the opera! If you want to prepare your brain for the Geordie accent, you might consider watching one or two of these films off the BFI list of “10 Great Films Net in North East England.”
“The Last Ship” premiered in Chicago (2014), and its run on Broadway during the same year garnered a Best Original Score for Sting. Choreographer Steven Hogan received a Drama Desk Award nomination. The US National tour production which premiered at the Ahmanson doesn’t list Hogan in the program credits. Instead, Lucy Hind is the “movement director” (and James Berkery as the associated movement director). The ensemble dancing isn’t always inspired, particularly the slot dancing seems stiff. This is a bit of a worry since this is a musical and there are two songs about dance: “When the Pugilist Learned to Dance” midway through the first act and “When We Danced” toward the end of the second act. This is a small quibble because “The Last Ship” does deliver some lively songs with a live orchestra on the right side of the stage and it does give the audience something to think about.
We know the shipyard will close and, of course, that means there will be no happy ending, but at least they will go down fighting and this musical is about a place and time that was irrevocably changed. After generations, after more centuries than the United States has been a nation, a way of life ended and will not rise again. The message of this musical is the common man and woman who helped build an empire, helped win a war got shafted by big business and government. Yet we also see the inevitability of progress, and that’s worth considering in a country where votes were won with promises made to coal workers and other people involved in industries that are in a decline.
“The Last Ship” continues until Valentine’s Day weekend, 16 February 2020, at the Ahmanson (135 N Grand Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90012). Tickets are $35 to $160. For more information call (213)628-2772 or visit http://www.centertheatregroup.org. Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes with a 20-minute intermission. This musical is appropriate for older children but too long for younger children.