The Last Ship arrives in Liverpool after three very successful weeks in Newcastle, where it began its UK tour last month. It’s a musical about a North East shipbuilding town facing an uncertain future, with a score by Wallsend-born Sting, so perhaps it’s no great surprise it proved such a hit on Tyneside. But its popularity with audiences was well deserved, and if there’s any justice it will be replicated around the rest of the country, as it certainly was here in Liverpool last night. This is a stupendous show.
Gideon – played by Richard Fleeshman, familiar to many as Coronation Street’s Craig Harris – is a sailor who opted for a life at sea rather than working like his father in the local shipyard. Now, 17 years later, he’s back, hoping his relationship with former girlfriend Meg (Frances McNamee, who has a beautiful singing voice) can be rekindled. But she’s a strong, independent character who since Gideon abandoned her has forged a new life for herself as the landlady of the local pub, where she lives with her teenage daughter Ellie (Katie Moore). And like the rest of the town she has other worries: the shipbuilding yard on which virtually everyone’s livelihood depends is threatened with closure, with the government refusing to step in and save it. Will the workers accept their fate or unite and find a way to resist it?
Central to the tale is foreman Jackie White (played by that fine Liverpool actor – and, it turns out, excellent singer – Joe McGann), who with the support of his wife Peggy (Charlie Hardwick, Emmerdale’s Val Pollard) battles to hold the community together. It’s a stirring saga, set in the 1980s but clearly relevant today, when opposition to austerity and corporate greed is so widespread. As the story unfolds it’s heartening and heartbreaking in equal measure, with superb performances all round from a very strong cast.
Helping to propel a wonderfully vibrant musical are Sting’s songs, which are appealingly varied, ranging from ballads and folk songs to footstomping choral numbers – all very well delivered by the cast and the ‘The Last Ship Band’. An awesome set comprising a towering arrangement of girders, gangways and staircases brings the shipyard memorably to life, but when occasion demands it can also be magically transformed into a cavernous church (complete with stunning stained glass windows) or a huge moving ship. Hats off to the programme too, which includes a set of informative articles on the story’s historical context and the background to the show.
The confidence and energy of this triumphant production are hard to reconcile with its somewhat troubled history. It premiered in the United States in 2014, when it starred Jimmy Nail (in Joe McGann’s role). However despite nominations for Tony awards it was a disappointment at the box office, and the script has been extensively revised by director Lorne Campbell for this UK version. Nail was again due to appear, then unexpectedly dropped out. It would have been good to see him again after several years out of the limelight, but McGann’s a very capable replacement. The original script may have had its weaknesses, but perhaps Broadway audiences also found it hard to relate to the travails of a Geordie shipyard. That’s certainly not a problem on Merseyside, no stranger to ships or (sadly) economic decline. In fact the production has strong echoes of Boys From The Blackstuff and Jimmy McGovern’s Dockers – which is of course to pay it a considerable compliment.
The audience reaction at the end could well have been the most enthusiastic I’ve ever witnessed – and Sting himself was there to see it!
***** Catch this ship before it sails – it’s tremendous.
The Last Ship continues at the Liverpool Playhouse until Saturday 14 April. Photos: Pamela Raith