Forget Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, and the Heart of the Ocean, and sail on down to the Southwark Playhouse for a truly titanic show. Even if you’re weary of “[insert popular subject here]: The Musical” type shows, this Off-West End transfer of the multi-Tony Award winning musical is a spectacle not to be missed. There aren’t any cheesy jazz hands, or French girls to be drawn, but simply 2.5 hours of a great musical finesse with some excellent production and direction from Danielle Tarento and Thom Southerland respectively, the team behind the acclaimed revivals of Parade and Victor/Victoria.
Far removed from the Oscar winning movie, Peter Stone’s book and Maury Yeston’s music and lyrics use its own original narratives, imagining the stories and relationships around the lives and backgrounds of actual passengers and crew on board the fated liner. We follow them from their awe and amazement of first boarding the ship, through the frivolities of the journey, to their tragic ends.
What really captivates you from the start is that Stone and Yeston focus on the dreams, aspirations, and sense of wonderment of the characters aboard more than anything. They actually feel like real people and are portrayed as delighted and blissfully unaware of what’s to come, rather than creating shallow caricatures serving only to illustrate the inevitable. In fact, the whimsy and jovial nature of the first half, and the interest the character spark, almost makes you forget where the whole thing is heading. The several storylines that we’re taken through are wonderfully heartfelt and never over-egged, making for a solid narrative with enough variety to keep you engaged.
Come Act II when the characters are faced with catastrophe, the timbre turns to fraught drama which Yeston’s music embodies fantastically, driving the action as confidently as it did in the first half and with just as much panache and power. There are very few moments where you switch off from what’s going on, and you’re with the musical throughout its entirety.
Tarento and Southerland, who have consistently proven to be a formidable duo, have tackled this London transfer with an understanding, ingenuity, and creativity that matches the calibre of the material. In making significant reductions to the original version – compacting the cast from 38 to 20, and a full orchestra arranged down to a piano quintet and percussion by Ian Weinberger – they have managed to loose nothing. Everything about this production is meticulous, from Southerland’s use of space and movement, to the overall polish from Tarento; it all looks fantastic.
David Woodhead’s stark two-tier set of steel panels and an upper deck, when combined with Howard Hudson’s lighting design, has a slick but simple allure and is beyond adequate for providing a space for the action and imagination. Southerland also makes effective use of the two tiers throughout, conveying the separation of the social classes on board, or simply using the height of the set to augment a sense of drama. Even with all 20 actors on stage, a huge cast for a relatively modest venue, Southerland manages to never make it feel cramped, and also orchestrates clockwork but bustling crowds with ease, peppered with some graceful bits of dance and physical theatre.
The cast are incredibly strong too, and it’s almost impossible to pick out any outstanding individual actors. They’re all dynamic, energetic, and wonderfully talented; never being over maudlin, and finding sweet and charming moments between them. Especially notable is the heart-warming rapport between Dudley Rogers and Judith Street as Isidor and Ida Strauss respectively. Also, James Hune is incredibly charismatic and flamboyant as the head of hospitality, Etches, the charming and well spoken underdog who holds everything together.
As a chorus, with the volume and clarity in their combined voices, it’s a wonder the Southwark Playhouse’s new venue didn’t fall apart under their thunderous and tremendous sound, which alone could have probably sunk the ship itself. The tutti numbers are an absolute knockout.
But as outstanding as this show is, alas, it’s not perfect. As much as for the most part Yeston’s music is an ethereal stream of consciousness, some numbers meander a little too much. A couple of the songs fail to establish a melody or structure and seem to just wander aimlessly. Also, “The Latest Rag” seems so out of place it actually comes across more silly than anything else, to the point you almost wonder if you’d fallen asleep and woken up in a different musical altogether.
As for the production, the only thing that mars it is it’s desperately yearning to set a due course for a large West End venue. For starters, with such a rich and grandiose score, the balance of huge voices and passionate music was always going to be difficult, especially in such a tight and acoustically flat space. This is particularly noticeable in certain numbers where cast members’ diction aren’t quite there, as it’s made worse by being muffled by too loud an orchestra. A more comprehensive sound board and system would have certainly helped here. Furthermore, as inventive as Hudson is with the set when it comes to the all important sinking of the ship, whilst impressive for what has been done given the limited resources, it’s still not entirely convincing, resulting in what should be the apex of the drama being a little wet. It just begs for technologically complex and show-stopping stagecraft for it to really wow.
But none of that should dissuade anyone from buying a ticket. The overall theatrics and fantastic performances left me with my heart in my throat and pulse bounding. There’s nothing quite like this on in the West End, let alone off it. With a production as lavish as the White Star Line’s flagship itself, it’s a First Class musical.
Titanic plays at the Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1 6BD, until 31 August 2013. Tickets are £22 (concessions available). To book, visit http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk.