Freelance journalist with a passion for theatre, the arts, food and books.
How good is new Sting musical?
Musician Sting is known for being an activist, so it should be no surprise that his musical The Last Ship has political undertones. The world-famous singer was at New Alexandra Theatre to oversee the opening night of the show in Birmingham, but was it all smooth sailing?
The Last Ship is a musical created by Sting
The Last Ship is something of a labour of love for Sting as it is heavily inspired by his childhood memories of growing up in the North East, in the shadow of a shipbuilding yard in Wallsend.
Audiences in the UK and Ireland are getting their first chance to see the show this year as part of a tour, which I caught at Birmingham's New Alexandra Theatre during its stay from April 16 to 21. I had high expectations as its stint in America a few years' ago (with a slightly different version) had gained it two Tony Award nominations for Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations.
It's a somewhat grim but striking plot for a musical about a community under threat, protesting as politicians move in to shut the yard, one of whom looks and sounds eerily similar to Maggie Thatcher.
At the same time, there's an equally dreary storyline about a young man returning home to find his childhood sweetheart after 17 years away, during which time his father has died.
Sets that recall times of industry in the North East
Okay, the show is far from hearts and flowers and leaping around in love, but this is a slice of reality from one of the most respected music artists in the world.
There's death, betrayal, heartbreak and most of all, a desperation to escape a life laid out for you when you have something more ambitious in mind. That comes through in several songs - particularly Dead Man's Boots - and are probably the most meaningful to Sting as he's openly talked about that being how he felt growing up in the North East.
As expected, the soundtrack by Sting is excellent with a folk influence to the foot-stamping tunes. There's also a choral element to the group numbers, similar to that of the all-male choirs found around the old mining communities.
In comparison, the solo numbers have a distinctive Sting sound, especially as actor Richard Fleeshman is heavily channelling a Sting impersonation in many of his numbers with rasping vocals.
A community under threat
The main pull for audiences will obviously be the music, but there's much more to this production than that. The stage set and design is hugely impressive and you can almost taste the salty air from the North Sea as huge screens display everything from roaring waves to stars amid a backdrop of cranes. The digital set also quickly transforms the scene from a ropy pub to a beautiful stained glass church and it's a huge bonus to the viewer.
The gritty plot is powerful and unpretentious too. The essence of it is people working and fighting together to protect what's important to them. Be warned, it does suddenly morph into a political call to arms in the final scene, expanding the message to not just the shipbuilding industry but to the NHS.
Actor Joe McGann adds some gravitas to the plot as foreman Jackie White while Charlie Hardwick, known for her stint in Emmerdale, plays his wife Peggy and is exceptional on stage with a rousing singing voice.
Richard Fleeshman, playing the returning naval officer Gideon, has an impressive voice, so it's understandable that he has been given some of the best and most emotional songs in the show including The Night The Pugilist Learned How To Dance.
Frances McNamee as Gideon's love interest Meg and Katie Moore as Ellen are both worth a mention for their strong vocals too.
A love story is also at the heart of the show
The First Act is the stronger of the two and the only drawback was that it was sometimes hard to understand characters with the strongest North East accents.
The Last Ship is a welcome first musical from Sting, who has combined his history, musical talent and political astuteness to create a moving piece of theatre. Hopefully, this is just the beginning of his move into the theatrical world.