Tuesday, June 7, 2016

'Titanic' at the Charing Cross Theatre, 6th June 2016

Titanic... the musical? It sounds disastrous. What better way to remember the tragic deaths of 1,517 souls than with a crowd-pleasing, toe-tapping musical? Even more ominously, it's an off-West End production staged in the not especially large (though by no means pokey) Charing Cross Theatre. How on earth can you do justice to the sinking of an 53,000 tonne ocean liner in a small theatre on a relatively limited budget while singing and dancing?

There's a quote from writer Maury Yeston on the back of the programme: "I think if you don't have that kind of daring damn-the-torpedoes, you shouldn't be in this business. It's the safe sounding shows that often don't do well". Fair enough. But as I took my seat I couldn't help but feel uneasy: the iceberg took two hours and forty minutes to sink Titanic. I had a feeling a musical adaptation could do the job far more efficiently.

In the end it's not half as awful as you'd expect, though there's a constant nagging sense that the basic idea of a Titanic musical is ridiculous. It's primarily a show about social class: the narrative dividing its characters between third, second and first classes (and prominent crew members) and treating the ship as a microcosm of Edwardian society. On top of that the musical places Titanic in the context of mankind's technological instinct: "In every age mankind attempts / To fabricate great works / At once magnificent / And impossible...

And so we board the mighty vessel, represented on stage by a some railings, a raised balcony, a set of wheeled stairs and a riveted steel proscenium arch. It's almost minimalist, smartly realising that the audience's imaginations, no doubt bolstered by the iconic movie, will fill in the blanks (though it later makes an unfortunate and underwhelming attempt to simulate the ship sinking by tilting part of the stage a couple of degrees). Helping our imaginations on is an evocative collection of period costumes, from the dowdily cosy coats of the third class to the top hats and tails of the first.

The twenty-strong cast are no slouches either. Each character is based on a real person aboard and each seems determined to do their memory justice. Highlights are Sion Lloyd's Thomas Andrews; a character as sturdy and steadfast as the ocean liners he designs. Though he spends too much time waving around a blueprint (we get it, he designed the ship...), his mathematical realisation that Titanic and the majority of its passengers are doomed is played with precision and subtlety. Other stand-outs are Philip Rham's Captain Smith, whose haunted gaze ably communicates guilt as the ship begins to list, and Jessica Paul's Kate Murphy, full of hope as she transitions from the bondage of the old world to the freedom of the new.

Lyrically, the songs increasingly reminded me of the famous Onion headline (and excellent front page) "WORLD'S LARGEST METAPHOR HITS ICEBERG". Yeston misses no opportunity to bludgeon the audience with the imagery of Titanic as symbol of technological prowess over nature and the ultimate manifestation of the 20th century craving for speed and convenience. As such, most characters end up not feeling so much like human beings as prisms through which we can deconstruct a very, very big boat.

Unfortunately, the rare moments when the characters are allowed to be people and not metaphor facilitators quickly collapse into hackneyed cheesiness, the show hamstrung by a a crippling addiction to incredibly blunt foreshadowing. You can tell things are a bit on the nose when Ismay, Captain Smith and Andrews' repetitive macho posturing about how their prized ship is unsinkable is eventually greeted with scattered chuckles.

The indisputable low point is the puke-inducingly saccharine Still, in which an elderly couple who've resigned themselves to a miserable death serenade one another with the glurgiest lyrics you can imagine. You sense if that the show could get away with having ushers walk the aisles waving freshly sliced onions under the audience's eyes they absolutely would. I'm not an opponent of all sentimentality, but this is just clumsy, particularly when contrasted to the clever finale of simply displaying the names of the 1500 victims of the disaster.

These stabs at emotional manipulation amass like barnacles on Titanic's hull and gradually decelerate the show, and with it the audience's interest. It's overlong at a touch under two and a half hours, to the point where a descent into yet another subplot (I think there are nine concurrent romances going on) gave me a severe case of numb bum syndrome. Even though this production already trims some of the fat from the diffidently received Broadway original you begin to wish that iceberg would hurry the hell up.

I just don't think the story of Titanic can really be done justice to through musical theatre and, though there are moments of delicacy, having characters based on victims of the tragedy singing and dancing through their imminent deaths feels faintly tasteless. Granted, the show hits its emotional, psychological and political targets, but these targets are so big (and also kind of obvious) that hitting them is akin to hitting the side of a barn: not that worthy of praise. 

The idea of a Titanic musical is silly, but if it has to exist then fine, this is probably the best it can be done. Though the show strains against the limitations of the musical medium, struggling to find ways to shoehorn in yet another song as the ship comes crashing down around the characters, it just about squeaks through. But it's a close call.


Titanic is at the Charing Cross Theatre until 6th August. Tickets here.

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