The Princess of Wales Theatre was full of the buzz of excitement on February 19 for the official opening of multi Grammy Award-winning musician Sting's musical The Last Ship, starring Sting himself in the critical role of union foreman Jackie White. This is a story of industrial action, of workers bonding together to defeat the government-mandated shutdown of their shipyard, the main source of livelihood for their town. It’s also the love story of a boy (Gideon) who runs away to sea to escape the trap of the shipyard – leaving behind his girlfriend (Meg) who, unbeknownst to him, is pregnant with their daughter. When Gideon returns 15 years later, he finds a girlfriend who doesn't seem to want him back, a rebellious daughter who wants to leave as much as he did, and the shipyard, the backbone of the town, in desperate straits.
Based on real events in the 1970s and 1980s – particularly the attempted shutdown of the Upper Clyde Shipyard in 1971 – and on Sting's own childhood in the ship-building town of Wallsend in the north of England, the show clearly has strong personal meaning for its creator. In the program notes he is quoted as saying: “I wanted to give the community where I was born a voice, to tell a narrative in this form because it's a story that hasn't been told. In a way, it's a kind of debt that I feel I owe. [...] I abandoned my town [...] I didn't want to be a part of it, so now I want to go back and say thank you for what (it) gave me.”
This feeling of emotional resonance is strongly present throughout The Last Ship – particularly in the wonderful music. Powerful choral numbers form the backbone of the score, songs full of rich harmonies and deep full-voiced singing. Equally strong and engaging on a personal level – interwoven with the community's choral voice – are the lovely clean and clear melodies of the solos and duets, particularly for the lovers meeting again, but also for (Sting's role) Jackie and his wife Peg.
There is much in the book to grab the interest and emotions of the audience, but also much to frustrate. The opening sequence, for example, takes too long to set the scene and yet seems to rush the time transition from the departure of Gideon to his return. There is also a rather clumsy use of a narrator (played by the same actress who plays the daughter), who speaks in mythic generalities rather than specifics. Once this opening sequence is out of the way, the plot does become clearer, but the book still needs work. This is a new version of John Logan and Brian Yorkey's original script (as seen on Broadway) by new director Lorne Campbell, but it feels at times as though words have been cobbled together to fit around the songs, rather than songs and scenes making an organic whole.
This is particularly the case with the shipyard plot, where, after deciding to face down the forces of government industrial privatization by taking over the shipyard to complete the last ship of the title, the characters never really seem to reach the anticipated climax. The interwoven love story plot, on the other hand, works much more smoothly and had all of us in the audience sitting forward in our seats, totally involved in the intricacies of the former lovers reconnecting and the “new” dad and daughter starting to navigate their newly discovered relationship. All three actors were very strong, particularly Frances McNamee as Meg, who is extraordinary. She had us in the palm of her hand throughout, completely magnetic in quiet moments and tearing up the stage with her defiance in the song “If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor.” Sophie Reid as the daughter, Ellie, also lit up the stage in the glorious “All This Time.” Here was Sting's past in a nutshell but in the person of a rebellious girl – which somehow made it even more powerful to watch. (Interestingly, in the original version of the show, this character was a boy.) It is, of course, rather a thrill to see Sting himself live onstage as part of this strong cast, though he seemed so much less at ease without a guitar in his hands.
The set by 59 Productions has some great elements, including some magnificent projections, but seems underused in the new staging, which often groups the actors statically on the main level rather than taking advantage of the possibilities of the set's scaffolding. The choreography, or movement direction, also seems lacking in imagination in the group scenes. One of these scenes does stand out for excellent staging because of its simplicity and symbolic placement of the singers: a wonderful song set in the town's church, complete with stained glass windows depicting the shipyard workers and one of their finished ocean liners. Movingly focused on the dying Jackie White with his wife Peg at its centre and using every level and nook and cranny of space for the rest of the cast, this caught at the heart.
This is the North American premiere of the newly revamped version of The Last Ship, which began at a workshop at Sage Gateshead in the UK in late 2017 before heading into a very successful run at Newcastle's Northern Stage and tour of the UK in 2018. While there must be some speculation about this being a test run before another trip to Broadway, I would say that the show isn't ready yet. It has great potential in its beautiful score, and great heart in the aim of its story, but could do with another concentrated workshop period to fulfill that stirring potential.
The Last Ship opened on February 19 in Toronto and continues at the Princess of Wales Theatre until March 24.
Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director, and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare, and new Canadian plays.