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

It seems that even after 111 years, Titanic continues to occupy a place in our consciousness, and to make headlines – sadly for yet more tragic reasons.

There have been greater losses of life at sea (in peacetime the Dona Paz passenger ferry in the Philippines for one, in wartime Cunard’s Lancastria among many others).

But Titanic remains the watchword for maritime disasters, perhaps driven by a combination of factors – the White Star Line’s ‘unsinkable’ boast, the fact it was on its maiden voyage, the high-profile passengers on board, the woeful lack of lifeboats, the legend of its band playing on….

Of course it’s also a compelling story of bravery, cowardice, sacrifice, selfishness, compassion and cruelty, so no wonder a century on it continues to be told; on stage, screen and in the pages of books.

Five years almost to the week since it was last here, Titanic the Musical has berthed at the Liverpool Empire again. That’s two more visits than the real ship ever paid the city, even if it did go down with Liverpool emblazoned on its stern and a crew packed with Liverpool born or based officers, engineers and firemen.

Maury Yeston and Peter Stone’s musical is indeed titanic, both in terms of cast size (there are 25 actors, and even then, many of them double up), David Woodhead’s two-deck set with its iron grey riveted backdrop and proscenium arch, and in the sheer ambition of its staging and its musical numbers.

Above and top: Titanic the Musical. Photos by Pamela Raith

It’s a Les Mis on the high seas, with myriad individual storylines weaving through the narrative arc which takes the audience from the luxury liner leaving Southampton to its final resting place 370 miles off the Newfoundland coast in a show whose running time comes in at 2 hours 40 minutes – on the lengthy side for theatre, but in the real world the same brief time it took from Titanic striking the iceberg to vanishing beneath the waves.

While the show, kept trimly on course by director Thom Southerland, has the scale and scope of Les Mis, Yeston’s stirring, almost symphonic score also nods in the direction of classical opera – some of the dialogue is sung as recitative, and Sondheim in its tone and structure. There’s also a hint of G&S nibbling around its more gilded edges.

It’s all underpinned by a band which augments a string quartet with keys and percussion and, while only six strong, creates a glorious full-bodied sound.

The rousing opening, which includes the majestic anthem Godspeed Titanic, is an extended musical exposition, while there are so many (real life) names and faces floating around – from the ship’s officers and crew to the occupants of what are strictly observed class distinctions - it takes several numbers to introduce them all.

Titanoracks among the audience will recognise the names, but others who want to learn more (potted biogs in the programme would have been a bonus) should try Encyclopedia Titanica online.

Liverpool’s Graham Bickley is a sturdy presence as Captain Edward Smith, on his final voyage before retirement, while Barnaby Hughes and Joseph Peacock are enjoyably urbane as 1st class steward Henry Etches and bandleader Wallace Hartley respectively. Meanwhile David Delve and Valda Aviks make a heart-tugging and sympathetic Isidor and Ida Strauss, and Bree Smith throws everything into her role as the giddy, celeb-spotting Alice (in real life Ethel) Beane.

Above: Graham Bickley as Captain Smith. Photo by Pamela Raith

While there’s a three-way blame game between builder, captain and owner as the ship starts to founder, it’s Martin Allanson’s J Bruce Ismay who is painted as the clear baddie of the piece, from his ‘unsinkable’ boast to his petulant insistence on speed above all else, to his shamelessly saving himself when so many of his company’s passengers and crew are left behind.

Godspeed Titanic aside, the show lacks any real sing-in-the-car-on-the-way home numbers, and ironically – while highlighting the rigid class system and the bleak fortunes of those in steerage compared to their loftier shipmates – it does tend to mostly concentrate on the swells in silks and smoking jackets.

The exceptions are a glimpse into the world of Adam Filipe’s Bootle-born stoker Fred Barrett, and the charming but poignant number Lady’s Maid where the ‘three Kates’ (Murphy, Mullins, McGowan) and their fellow steerage companions reveal their dreams about and aspirations for their new lives in America. Lives we know most of them will never live.

A huge screen which descends, bearing the names of all the tragedy’s many victims, is a sobering reminder that while Titanic the Musical is entertainment, and excellent entertainment at that, it’s also about the importance of humanity.


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