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Review: Titanic the Musical at Liverpool Empire ****

It’s been more than a century since Titanic slid to the bottom of the freezing North Atlantic, but the story continues to fascinate.

There have been other maritime disasters with massive loss of life, but the White Star Line’s ship, mythologised almost before it made its fatal maiden voyage, is the one that has captured the imagination – both of the public, and of artists, writers, composers and film-makers.

Maury Yeston and Peter Stone’s musical came out in the same year as James Cameron’s film, and won a clutch of top Tony Awards on Broadway, just as Titanic swept all before it at the Oscars.

And like the blockbuster movie – and the ship itself – Titanic the Musical is a behemoth, both in terms of sheer numbers of cast and in its score, which has an epic, operatic feel to it, a sort of Les Mis with boats not barricades.

It could also be something of a challenging score however for those used to more mainstream musicals. It makes liberal use of recitatives, and has a semi sung-through structure in the style of a Jesus Christ Superstar.

Titanic the Musical. Photos: Scott Rylander

Unlike Superstar or Les Mis however, what it lacks is a sing-it-on-the-way home anthem – Godspeed Titanic, with its stirring refrain ‘sail on, sail on, great ship Titanic’ is perhaps as close as it gets.

Whereas Cameron opted to put mostly fictional characters centre stage, Yeston and Stone’s story is populated by real-life passengers and crew, who are introduced in an extended opening exposition featuring the full company.

All three ‘classes’ are represented, and class divisions – along with dreams and hopes – is one of the themes of the story. The rulers with their cocktails and Captain’s table chatter occupy one world, while those seeking a new life in the New World are crammed in to steerage, with the aspirational second class sandwiched between the two in the form of over-excitable Alice Beane (Jacinta Whyte).

Beane’s real name was Ethel, but apart from one of two liberties, the writing team has remained faithful to the real people on board, bringing them back to life a century after so many perished.

Titanoraks will already know what happened to most of them, while the rest of the audience have plenty of time in a substantial first half to mentally sort them in to ‘saved’ or ‘doomed’.

Jacinta Whyte as Alice Beane and Timothy Quinlan as husband Edgar. Photo: Scott Rylander

This rare touring revival is handsomely realised on designer David Woodhead’s double-height gantry set, framed by a heavily-riveted steel arch.

And the huge ensemble generates a sumptuous, truly titanic sound, buoyed by a band, under the direction of Mark Aspinall, which belies its modest size.

The first half feels a bit static, at times like a concert rather than a full-blown musical, and the drama, such as it is, is on a domestic rather than an epic, scale. It’s not just bombastic owner J Bruce Ismay (Simon Green) willing Titanic to go a bit faster.

But as the iceberg looms in front of Liverpool-born look out Frederick Fleet and the liner thumps in to its icy, jagged edges, the action picks up, and in the second half there’s a real sense of icy tension as the fate of the unsinkable ship and its human cargo becomes heart-pumpingly clear.

While the cast is at its mightiest when in full voice, there are a series of lovely individual vignettes and performances, including Matthew McKenna as the suave first class bedroom steward Henry Etches, Oliver Marshall’s eager young telegrapher Harold Bride, and Victoria Serra’s feisty Irish lass Kate McGowan.

The musical has a weighty running time of two hours 40 minutes – exactly the amount of time it took Titanic to sink. Clever decision, or chilling coincidence? Whatever, it certainly concentrates the mind.

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