The Last Ship, Sting’s moving paean to his upbringing in England’s North East now playing at the Ahmanson Theater has finally come into its own in a new production. With a well-paced, focused story, and a new book by Newcastle’s Northern Stage director Lorne Campbell, the show is the fourth incarnation of Sting’s songwriting which includes an original 2014 production in New York as well as a stand-alone album and a live concert of expanded music performed in 2013 at the New York Public Theater.
The theme of escape is one that keeps returning in these characters and the songs they sing
Centered on the failing shipyard industry in Thatcher’s England, The Last Ship captures the political desperation surrounding the closing of the last of the Tyneside shipyards and the personal stories of a community and families being torn apart. Filled with a cast of sympathetic players and an unabashed celebration of the working man, The Last Ship’s realism gets dramatic treatment in the sets and projections by 59 Productions who have remade a spectacular industrial environment for the stage. The story takes oblique cues from the Ewan McColl Radio Play Series for the BBC from the 1960’s and a second BBC series in 2006 with musical direction by John Tams. Those stories put the working man forward for his struggles and achievements in documentary narratives of the collieries, shipyards, and railroads in a format laced with folk song and original music. While The Last Ship has its own musical language Sting draws with affection on traditional notions of choruses and British Isles folksong especially in the opening tune for the ensemble piece We’ve Got Now’t borrowed from the street theater of the sword dancing tradition native to England’s North East.
The story intertwines the collective effort of the Wallsend shipbuilders and their families to fend off the closing of the local shipyard with the romantic entanglements of Meg Dawson and Gideon Fletcher. Gideon returns to Wallsend after a long absence with his sights set on picking up again with Meg who has built a life there for herself in his absence. The theme of escape is one that keeps returning in these characters and the songs they sing. And while the yards provide a future the work is tough, dangerous, and the notion of flight embodied in the first act Island of Souls is never far away. The story, in which Sting plays the role of a world weary Jackie White, a shipyard foreman, finally coalesces in a united effort to take over the shipyard and finish a final ship before the yard is sold off.
There is plenty of exceptional songwriting here, much of it laced with a hefty dose of Geordie slang which delivers an undeniable sense of place. Sting is both a gifted poet and melodist. It's a little surprising that after a career of major albums and huge concert venues that the music for the production rings with so much traditional spirit and an undeniable knack for musical theater. What Say You, Meg for the romantic leads played by Oliver Savile and Frances McNamee is a rich ballad fitted out with unrestrained nostalgia and a sweeping sense of longing. The ensemble piece The Last Ship, set as a rolling waltz mines eerily the open modal spaces familiar to English folksong and comes with a chorusing reprise. Underground River for Billy Thompson, a hard-nosed shipwright played by Joe Caffrey, is the show’s anthem to the working man. It effectively puts together Irish dance music and a pop groove. The music for the production, backed by a small onstage band directed by Richard John, delivers a big sound. And while Sting has star billing the cast’s terrific voices and the show’s seamless movement from dialogue to song makes the whole of The Last Ship a true ensemble accomplishment.
The Last Ship wears is politics on its sleeve. Included in the program is a timeline of Tyneside shipbuilding and the protests that characterized a decade of strikes and the brutality of the collapsing industrial base in Northern England. The scene for Women at the Gate is drawn from events of the miner’s strike in which wives of miners chained themselves to the colliery gates (and sang) to prevent violent beatings by the police. It’s an English story but its message resonates with all of us.
. . . the cast’s terrific voices and the show’s seamless movement from dialogue to song makes the whole of The Last Ship a true ensemble accomplishment.
In 2007 the last of the cranes in the Swan Hunter Yard in Wallsend were broken up and sent to India. It was an ignominious end to more than a century and half of shipbuilding and blow to the community of workers who built them. Billy Thompson dares us to feel the sense of place and belonging when he emphatically shouts out “We Build Ships” at the end of Underground River. The big boats may be gone, but the pride that built them has not gone anywhere.
main photo: Oliver Savile as 'Gideon Fletcher' (left) and Sting as 'Jackie White' in The Last Ship © Matthew Murphy