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Titanic (Charing Cross Theatre, London): Review

Titanic Drowning in song. The cast of 'Titanic'. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Few musicals can swell to keep a lump constantly bobbing at your throat like Titanic. A momentous return for this unsinkable revival.

The world’s largest moving object, and an allegedly “unsinkable” ship, the RMS Titanic was a miracle of civil engineering. On it’s maiden voyage in April 1912, it hit an iceberg only 90 miles from its destination, New York, causing it to sink. Over 1000 people perished in the icy waters, triggering the most radical overhaul of maritime safety laws ever known, and the tragedy endures as a cultural legend. Titanic focuses on the lives of real individuals who were on board the fated crossing; first class, second class, third class, and crew.

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The blue prince. Sion Lloyd as Andrews in ‘Titanic’. Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Book, Music, & Lyrics

It’s difficult to know what more to say about Titanic after I first saw and reviewed it three years ago when it docked at the Southwark Playhouse. It was a brilliant musical then, so why would it be any different now? Reading back over my four star review of Titanic, there really isn’t much about Peter Stone’s magnificent book and Maury Yeston’s inimitable score and songs I can add: it’s still believable, heartfelt, and detailed.

However, being a second outing and already being quite familiar with the material, it has given me the ability to notice a lot more about Titanic than I picked up upon during my first sailing. Yeston’s music is still grand and sweeping, and the reduction to two keys, a string quartet, and percussion is still as luscious as the full orchestral score of the original Broadway production. But there are also wonderful rhythms and repetitions both musically and lyrically that subtly bring out an aural poetry that is really quite striking. It’s proof that God is really in the detail for Yeston, making Titanic’s songs intelligent and deliberate and not some throw-away fling. This time around, “The Latest Rag” even managed to charm me, despite it being one of the main gripes three years ago.

Without going into too much an additional analysis, it’s a real oddity that Titanic closed early on Broadway, given Stone’s well paced, stirring and heartbreaking book, and Yeston’s tremendous score: both of which rightly earned Titanic three of its five Tony Awards. But from the opening strains of the overture, to devastatingly beautiful numbers like “Godspeed Titanic” and “Lady’s Maid”, the biting and playful sardonism of “What A Remarkable Age It Is” and “Dressed In Your Pajamas in the Grand Salon”, and the gripping drama of “The Blame” and “Mr Andrew’s Vision”, you simply cannot fight the emotional swell that rushes the entire theatre. Very few musicals keep you on such moving tenterhooks for so long and so ecstatically. Much like the RMS Titanic was a wonder of its age, Titanic is a true marvel of modern musical theatre.

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2nd class act. Peter Prentice (left) and Alice Claire (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Scott Rylander.

Direction & Production

Since its Southwark Playhouse debut, Titanic then took a trip to Canada. There, it had to reconfigure itself from the spacey thrust of the Southwark Playhouse to a more traditional proscenium arch setting. On its return trip, it’s had to adapt to the less generous space of the Charing Cross Theatre. However, everything about it is still the familiar, minimal, and ingeniously effective design as before: still looking very much like the original production. David Woodhead’s two tiers of wrought iron and riveted steel still looks impressive and gives the production so much to go on in terms of really playing with space and height. Howard Hudson’s lighting is a masterful decoupage of light and colour, with literal layers of warmth and spectrum that is truly spectacular. There are moments where it’s one wash of lighting high up downstage, then another below, and another behind all of that! It’s simply stunning lighting work, and really demonstrates why Hudson works on such high-profile shows like In The Heights as well as Titanic.

Thom Southerland’s direction is spot on here, too. There is a constant drive that pushes Titanic and everything flows fluidly without dragging. Whether there have been any significant changes in Southerland’s approach to the direction of Titanic, compared to the original Southwark Playhouse production, is difficult to say. But there is a real stamina of energy behind this version, and it’s exhilarating, using this horsepower to really capitalise on the high drama and tension of some scenes. Elsewhere, Southerland’s use of the two-tier stage is always fresh and inventive, creating some arresting visuals that feed into the rapid currents of the show’s energy like before, but can actually be much more appreciated given the head-on sight lines rather than the sprawling views from the sides of the thrust.

There are some minor little alterations in how things and people move about in terms of movement and choreography so Titanic can fit onto the comparatively snug stage, but asides from that, this is still very much the same astonishing production from three years ago. Not only does Titanic show just what the Charing Cross Theatre is capable of (The Phoenix Machine are set to also be in the business of resurrecting theatres as well as shows), Titanic is the turbulence in the waters of the West End, showing big theatres how it’s really done.

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Hot. Niall Sheehy as Barrett in ‘Titanic’. Photograph: Courtesy of Annabel Vere.

Cast

With many of the original cast from the Southwark Playhouse production returning to Titanic, the company are just as exquisite as everything else in this production. As an entire cast, the sound they create is simply bellowing and brilliant. This is a band of musical theatre performers that really give it their all and revel in the richness of Yeston’s gorgeous score. Furthermore, though so many of them double or and even triple their parts, the verve they throw behind the plethora of passengers of all classes is so dizzying you forget that there’s only a cast of 20 involved.

I could wax lyrical about so many of the lead performances, but am going to have to restrain myself and be particularly choice. Claire Machin as Alice Beane is possibly one of my favourite things in Titanic, mostly because she’s part of one of my favourite story arcs in the show. Even though she wasn’t part of the original cast, Machin makes the role her own and is fabulously determined and fun as the second class passenger with a thirst for first. Machin is wonderfully larger than life and bombastic, but doesn’t forsake the tender bond and chemistry she has with Peter Prentice playing her husband, and also brings out an aching frustration behind her bold ambition.

Victoria Serra, reprising her role as Kate McGoawn, having played it in both Southwark and Canada and also having a star turn in Grand Hotelis simply divine. Vivacious and dynamic, Serra is intoxicatingly strong-willed with an unapologetic presence, and a sharp and pristine voice that is glorious to listen to. Then, there’s Dudley Rogers and Judith Street as Isidor and Ida Straus who’s onstage romance is inexcusably sweet and tender. These are two professionals far from long in the tooth and still very much at the height of their games. Their contribution to their storyline arc in Titanic is nothing short of blissful.

Finally, Niall Sheehy as Barrett is more “dream liner” than “dream boat”. Painfully handsome, he also makes Yeston’s songs soar to tremendous heights with toppling power, especially “The Proposal” (aka “Marry Me”, and don’t think I wouldn’t) and “Barret’s Song”. Sheehy is really the cream of the crop of musical theatre performers, having already wowed in Pure Imaginationand Titanic is incredibly lucky to have him on board.

Verdict

Musical luxury like London has never seen, Titanic is a theatrical experience as grand and as effusively epic as the doomed ship itself. A real Off-West End gem of West End magnitude that absolutely should not be allowed to sail by.

Titanic plays at the Charing Cross Theatre, London, WC2N 6NL, until 6 August 2016. Tickets are £17.50 – £39.50. To book, visit www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk.