REVIEW: ‘Titanic the Musical’, Birmingham Hippodrome

Titanic the Musical, Birmingham Hippodrome

  “How can such a terrible thing happen to such a marvellous ship?”.

  It’s a question we’ve been asking for decades, and yet it’s one to which we still don’t appear to have a satisfactory answer.

  Now, over one hundred years later, the RMS Titanic remains a source of fascination for many, theories emerging regularly proposing some new cause behind the sinking of the so-called ‘unsinkable ship’ – poor visibility, flawed design, an earlier fire, or just downright incompetency – although it’s fair to say that conclusive proof is wanting.

  Regardless of the cause, what we know for certain is that this proved to be one of the most devastating tragedies in maritime history, costing 1517 their lives.

The cast of Titanic the Musical. Photo credit: Scott Rylander

  ‘Titanic the Musical‘ takes us back to the fateful maiden voyage of this legendary ship, charting the final hours of those aboard as they share with us their dreams and aspirations, embarking on what they hope will be a “chance of a lifetime” trip.

 Directed by Thom Southerland, with music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, this stirring and poignant revival of the original Broadway musical is beautifully staged, and skilfully executed. Every element of this powerful production comes together to create a breathtaking spectacle, a truly stunning piece of theatre, that will just about leave you wondering whether your heart will go on.

  There’s no doubt that the Titanic was built during a “remarkable age”, one of progress, of industrial revolution, a time when “machines run the world”. The opening half of the production explores the majesty and splendour of the age, and mankind’s ability to accomplish greatness.

  We are introduced to a host of colourful characters, from the immigrants of the 3rd class, to the millionaires in the 1st class, their differing backgrounds reflecting the infinite variety of life. However, all stand equally amazed at the ship, awe-struck, full of hope and promise. Despite obvious class distinctions, they find themselves equally determined to make the most of their trip aboard the “ship of dreams”, all with their own personal ambitions.

Claire Machin (Alice Beane) and Timothy Quinlan (Edgar Beane) in Titanic the musical. Photo credit: Scott Rylander

  We follow the 1st class, basking in the luxury they are used to. The 2nd class are thrilled at the opportunity to rub shoulders with the 1st, and the 3rd class “aim to find a better life”. Opportunity beckons in America, a place that would enable them to “rise above [their] class” and “aspire to heights of glory”. Indeed, for many, the chance for better prospects is waiting for them when they disembark. Based on the real-life passengers of the Titanic, the show is grounded in a truthful reality, that doesn’t just entertain, but also informs.

  The ensemble have been cast perfectly. All give flawless performances, singing Yeston’s moving and memorable score with such passion, emotion and intensity. The characters are very likeable, and really quite endearing, and so the audience finds themselves connecting with them, adding a heightened poignancy as we know all too well the outcome for most. Blissfully ignorant of their impending doom, these innocent passengers plan for the future, their dreadful fate lingering in the back of our minds, and yet we hope against hope, wishing away the ending that we know is inevitable. We are moved when stoker Frederick Barrett sends a message back to is sweetheart, telling her that he’ll be home “before a fortnight has passed”; we know he won’t. We allow ourselves to get caught up in their dreams, daring to dream with them. The production is therefore steeped in a bitter irony – all these characters are making plans for their futures, and yet the harsh reality is that most of them will not survive to see them through. And for those few that do survive, they will be haunted by their experiences.

Niall Sheehy (Frederick Barrett) in Titanic the Musical. Photo credit: Scott Rylander

  Those in command of the ship received repeated warnings of icebergs, and yet, as in the biblical days of Noah, “they took no note until the flood came and swept them all away”. Sailing onwards against all sense and reason, priority was placed on the breaking of records, achieving dangerously high speeds in order to set a precedent, and gain glory. When tragedy strikes at the end of the first half of the show, in a very dramatic moment as the ship hits the iceberg, the second half really gives a sense of the panic and chaos that would no doubt ensue. However, whilst the passengers are taking action, Captain Edward Smith, architect Thomas Andrews and owner J. Bruce Ismay argue over who should accept responsibility for this failure, whilst deceiving the passengers that “there is no cause for concern”; they don’t appear to grasp the gravity of the situation, as if it could not be believed, let alone spoken of.

  As the ship sinks, women and children are launched into the lifeboats, cleverly separated, pushed towards the front of the stage, with the majority of men remaining behind. There is a particularly touching moment when a father bids farewell to his young wife and newborn baby. A inspiring display of stoicism, the remaining men gather together, having resigned themselves to their fate, accepting futility and their powerlessness to act, and attempt to encourage one another, continuing to drink, to listen to the band that will play until the end, and just generally carrying on. The sinking of the ‘set’ here is a fantastic moment in the production – the stern of the ship lifts to a vertical angle, architect Andrews clinging to the rails. An incredible feat of on-stage engineering!

Greg Castiglioni (Thomas Andrews), Philip Rham (Captain Edward Smith), Oliver Marshall (Harold Bride) and Simon Green (Ismay) in Titanic the Musical. Photo credit: Scott Rylander

  Derived from the word ‘titan’ in Greek mythology in reference to something that is extremely large, David Woodhead‘s titanic set is powerfully impressive, and goes a long way to echoing the sheer scale of this great ship, “the largest moving object in the world”. The imposing design fills the stage, dominating the space, towering over the cast in a dramatic show of size and strength. With more than one level, coupled with the elaborate costumes reflective of the height of Edwardian society, the creative aspects of the production further establish the idea of class distinction, reflecting societal structure. Just as the ship was evidence of industrial progress, so too is a set such as this one indicative of the progress of theatre, forever moving forwards, increasingly “beyond past endeavour”. Awe-inspiring, this production shows that, when it comes to theatre, “what a remarkable age”.

  One of the key messages that shines through in this production is the very idea of class distinction, with the treatment of those 3rd class passengers still shocking people today. As the ship was sinking, Captain Smith appeared to take on the role of God, deciding who lives and who dies. The 1st class passengers were called into the Grand Salon, followed by the 2nd class passengers, whilst it was decided that the 3rd class passengers be left to fend for themselves, many locked in the lower decks, with no hope of escape. However, even though the 1st class passengers were afforded first place on the lifeboats, this is a sterling example that, when it comes down to it, for all a person’s wealth and fame, it cannot save you. Regardless of background, class or wealth, all are affected by tragedy.

Philip Rham (Captain Edward Smith) in Titanic the Musical. Photo credit: Scott Rylander

  However, when it comes to the passengers themselves, what we can take from the production is the idea that, in times of tragedy, people rally together, transcending class divisions, and this is something we see today. The whole notion of class is severely outdated, paling into insignificance in the face of adversity, as people from all walks of life encourage, help and console one another. The idea that the class a person is born into should affect their future prospects is frankly ridiculous, and no longer has any solid grounding in this, the 21st century. The world is moving forwards, sailing onwards, and as we learn from the mistakes of our past, it’s things like this production that remind us of what’s really important, and class isn’t. In times of distress, “first class, and third, and second will mean nothing! And sheer humanity alone will prevail. One single class, brute and harsh and crass, that’s what will come of the world that sets sail”. This is what we are sailing towards, and we are making headway – although there is still some way to go.

  At the end of the production, after the total submergence of the Titanic, the surviving characters, picked up by the RMS Carpathia, return to the stage, blankets around their shoulders and, their backs to the audience, they began to examine the lists containing the names of all those who perished in the disaster. One by one, they turn, and either relate a fact regarding the tragedy, remind us who they lost, or start doubting their decisions, wondering where responsibility lay. This haunting scene really brings home the reality of this event.

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Greg Castiglioni (Thomas Andrews) in Titanic the Musical. Photo credit: Scott Rylander

  Indeed, the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic did indeed make headlines, but for all the wrong reasons. What should have gone done in history as a great success will forever be remembered as a huge failure, its fatal consequences affecting people in their hundreds, and touching the hearts of thousands.

  Despite not sounding like good source material for a musical on the surface, the result is strangely uplifting. ‘Titanic the Musical’ is an innovative and touching tribute to those who lost their lives in the tragedy. A very tasteful and respectful handling of delicate subject matter.”In every age mankind attempts to fabricate great works, at once magnificent, and impossible”. This production is a great work, magnificent without question. Harrowing and heart-rending, the show continues to sail onwards towards success.

  The finale sees the cast united on stage, reprising one of the opening songs, in an inspiring display of strength and unity, once more full of hope

  “Sail on, sail on, great ship, Titanic”.

  The RMS Titanic continues to sail on – in memory, in history, in legend.

The cast of Titanic the Musical ‘sailing on!’.

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