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Review: The Last Ship at Liverpool Playhouse ****

What do you do when everything that defines you – as an individual and a community – suddenly threatens to disappear?

It’s a question that has been asked many times over the past few decades, particularly in the now former heartlands of heavy industry.

And with an estimated 50 per cent of jobs that currently exist set to disappear in the next 20 years, it’s a question that will become increasingly pertinent for all of us.

For the characters that populate Sting and writer/director Lorne Campbell’s stirring love letter to the Wallsend shipbuilding community, the answer is to fight back – with both words and deeds.

When their yard is put on a course of managed decline (by a caricature of a government minister not even thinly disguised as Maggie Thatcher), the men of Tyneside and their battling womenfolk first decide to make a stand on the picket line, and then, when the gates are closed on them, determine instead to proudly finish the job and launch their last ship.

Pride, self-worth, heritage and hope come together to the beat of the riveter’s hammer, thumped out in impressive and passionate unison by the ensemble.

Running parallel to this is a second plot centred around the return of prodigal adventurer Gideon Fletcher (Richard Fleeshman, channelling his inner Sting in his husky vocal performance) and his attempts to rebuild his relationship with the love he abandoned all those years before.

When The Last Ship premiered on Broadway, the Americans built up the love story element of the plot at the expense of the political. Here on home turf the politics elbow their way with thundering, stamping, resonating feet to take centre stage once more.

Music and movement are used to powerful effect, and Sting – watching from the dress circle on opening night - has created an irresistible soundtrack which takes the Northumbrian folk tradition as a base note and then adds everything from ballads to bossa nova on top.

It’s performed with equal power by the cast whose choral work is rich, expressive, and very impressive, while the action unfolds on an inspired shipyard set, its metal ribs and gantries the framework for some clever and effective projection which transforms it in to a yard, a home, a pub and a church in turn.

The first half builds steadily – and poetically – towards an inaugural outing for the beautiful and anthemic The Last Ship, but there are currently a couple too many story strands vying for attention after the interval which push up the running time and threaten to detract from the show’s persuasive central message.

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