There are a few events in history that we all just sort of know about, without necessarily remembering how or why. Henry VIII and his wives would be one; the World Wars, obviously… and the sinking of the Titanic is another. It’s an event so legendary, and so much a part of our national history, that sometimes we forget the sheer scale of the tragedy that claimed 1,517 lives in the early hours of April 15th, 1912.
This probably wasn’t helped by James Cameron’s blockbuster movie – which happened to coincide with my teenage years, so I make no apology for the fact I saw it five times at the cinema. As much as we all cried when she let go (admit it), the film went so overboard – sorry – on the special effects that as Celine Dion sang us out, the story of the Titanic still felt like just that: a story.
Maury Yeston and Peter Stone’s Tony award-winning musical, which was first performed on Broadway in 1997, approaches telling the story in a similar way to the movie it preceded. Act 1 (pre-iceberg) is considerably longer than Act 2, setting the scene and introducing us to the lives, loves, hopes and fears of a cross-section of the people aboard the ship: passengers – from first, second and third class, and all based on real people – and crew, from Barrett the stoker all the way up to Captain Smith. But with no Jack and Rose to hog the limelight, and despite the need to keep over twenty characters straight in our heads, we care about the fate of every single one. There’s also a lovely touch at the end of the show, which ensures we leave thinking not just about the people on stage, but about everyone who perished in those icy Atlantic waters.
Of course no portrayal of the Titanic would be complete without an element of social commentary; the theme of class runs throughout the show, without ever lecturing (because, let’s be honest, it doesn’t really need to). Heartbreakingly, it’s the third class passengers who are most likeable, and have the most to look forward to, yet we know from the start it’ll be they who are more likely to perish, simply because of where they come from.
It’s quite a feat to not only recreate on stage a ship with over 2,000 people on board, but then to sink it too. And yet somehow, despite the relatively intimate setting and with surprisingly little in the way of special effects, Thom Southerland’s production feels like an epic. Partly this is down to the incredible cast, who rotate through a multitude of roles, costumes and accents, giving the sensation there are hundreds of them instead of a couple of dozen. And it’s partly a result of David Woodhead’s multi-level and constantly moving set, which brings us right on board the Titanic, so that we feel the same awe as the passengers and crew on their first sighting.
But it’s mostly due to Maury Yeston’s music, with new arrangements by Ian Weinberger and directed by Joanna Cichonska, which is nothing short of exquisite. The show is a true ensemble piece, and while the solo numbers are fantastic, it’s when the cast and orchestra all come together – whether in hope as the ship sets sail, panic as it begins to sink, or grief as loved ones are separated – that the music quite literally soars, filling every inch of the space with its stunning harmonies.
Unlike its ill-fated subject, Titanic looks set to repeat the resounding triumph of its 2013 run at Southwark Playhouse. It’s a show that deserves a larger stage and a much wider audience. I know I’m gushing, but that’s how much I loved it – and I’m a grown-up now (or so they tell me), so I can’t even put my reaction down to a teenage crush on Leonardo DiCaprio.