The Last Ship portrays the end of an era in Great Britain when the shipbuilders of Wallsend ultimately went the way of the dinosaurs much like American coal miners in the late 20th century. When overseas shipbuilders could produce a competitive product for millions less with no messy unions to deal with. It eliminated a whole way of life for thousands of workers who struggled to reinvent themselves in an economy that no longer wanted them.
Singer/composer/musician Sting created a loving tribute to the town of his youth in England’s gritty Northern country. Entire generations of families lost everything…but they didn’t go quietly. The battles they fought to take over their shipyard and launch one last ship is the plot of this uneven musical that can’t quite decide to go port or starboard.
At the show’s opening scene, young Gideon desperately wants to flee the poverty and narrowness of Wallsend and rebels against his father’s wishes to join the shipbuilders union. Instead, he impulsively runs off to join the Navy, leaving behind his childhood love Meg whom he promises to return for in a short while.
Seventeen years later, the disillusioned Meg is running a local pub and raising daughter Ellen as a single mum, when Gideon suddenly reappears, wanting to reclaim his lost love and discovers he has a daughter. This all happens amid news that the shipyard will be closing, and the last ship they are working on, the Utopia, will be torn down and sold for scrap.
Sting plays Jackie White, the shipyard foreman, who is caught between management and his men. His wife, Peggy, is the shipyard nurse who stands loyally by her man as the builders and their families turn on Jackie in a rage of betrayal and disappointment.
If it sounds like a lot is going on here, there is. And each element – plot, music, dialogue, movement – is fighting against each other, much like the characters in the show. The opening number is a rousing sea shanty of sorts, “We’ve Got Nowt Else” sung full-throttle by the powerful chorus. It starts promising, but then subsequent numbers are alternately Sondheim-Esque character pieces, inspiring hymns, jazzy eleven o’clock showstoppers, or a plaintive reflection from Sting’s classic album “The Soul Cages.” In fact, three songs from that album are featured in THE LAST SHIP. This results in a dissonance that often throws the show off-balance.
As far as the cast goes, there are some outstanding talents up there, giving it their all. The real find of this production is the glorious Frances McNamee, whose tremulous yet powerful voice brings Meg to full life. As her love Gideon, Oliver Savile has a beautiful presence and shows both the good and bad sides of this prodigal. Like Ellen, the feisty young woman who also longs to flee the shipyards like her father did to pursue a musical career, Sophie Reid has a strong voice but seems a bit too mature to be 16 years old. Other outstanding performers include Jackie Morrison as the no-nonsense wife of Jackie White; Marc Akinfolarin as a philosophizing builder who brings a sweet quality to his scenes; and Annie Grace, channeling her best Margaret Thatcher person as a Baroness who represents the government in the shipyard brouhaha.
But where you might be asking, is Sting, the star and musical creator of THE LAST SHIP in this review? I, he is the least compelling actor on that stage. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Sting, and when he is performing in concert, he is a magical, magnetic presence. But he’s not rough-edged and dynamic enough to portray Jackie. I have a feeling that he agreed to be the marquee name to boost sales for the show, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But his restrained and erudite way of speaking doesn’t really fit the working-class Jackie. However, he has the most authentic accent on the stage. Many of the cast members are inconsistent, slipping between Scottish, Irish, and a weak attempt at the traditional Geordie accent of northern England.
Definite praise must be leveled at the 59 Productions design team that created the multi-level set using projected images to change scenes and mimic the look of a real shipyard bay. Director Lorne Campbell met the challenge of bringing all the sound, movement, and performance elements into a cohesive presentation, which was no easy task. Other production team members include Sound Designer Sebastian Frost, Lighting Designer Matt Daw, Music Supervisor, and Orchestrator Rob Mathes, Musical Director Richard John, Costume Designer Molly Einchcomb, and Movement Director Lucy Hind.
While it may not be the grand musical the creators envisioned, it is nonetheless a unique look at a way of life that is no more. THE LAST SHIP is playing at the Music Center’s Ahmanson Theater through February 16, 2020. General tickets for “The Last Ship” are available online at CenterTheatreGroup.org, by calling Audience Services at (213) 972-4400 or in person at the Center Theatre Group Box Office.
Photos by Matthew Murphy.