Anyone expecting to hear Celine Dion is going to be bitterly disappointed. Southwark Playhouse’s version of the Titanic story has nothing to do with James Cameron’s epic, but is rather a revival of Yeston and Stone’s Tony award-winning musical, which premiered on Broadway six months before the launch of the film. It was, perhaps, monumentally bad timing because, whatever the failings of Cameron’s syrupy adaptation, for any audience member coming to this musical since, the film is a powerful – in fact an inescapable – visual precedent. As a result, the production never quite stands on its own two feet; how could it possibly?
Yeston and Stone’s story is told in groups of threes. To mirror the three classes, we have three sets of lovers – Isidor and Ida Strauss from first class (played by Dudley Rogers and Judith Street); Edgar and Alice Beane from second class (played by Oliver Hembrough and Celia Graham) and Jim Farrell and Kate McGowan from steerage (played by Shane McDaid and Victoria Serra). There are other threes: the captain, the owner and the architect share several scenes; and the stoker, the telegrapher and the lookout; there are even three girls named ‘Kate’. Though this gives us a nice cross-section of the different people on Titanic, it is perhaps more characters than a two-hour musical can sustain, and some exchanges feel a little rushed and run through.
That’s not to say the production doesn’t do several things incredibly well. The score is rich and evocative – especially rich when you consider the orchestra, squashed onto a scaffold at the back of the auditorium, consists of little more than a string quartet, some keys and a drum kit. David Woodhead’s costumes are another triumph, incredibly well-made and detailed when you realise that double-casting means costume changes occur frequently and at speed.
The production’s greatest triumph without question is its cast, who were uniformly excellent. Two numbers by Jonathan David Dudley in the first half are especially memorable, as is a nicely-worked duet by James Austen-Murray and Mathew Crowe in the telegrapher’s station, where the dit-dit-dah-dit of Morse code is worked neatly into a song about the inability to communicate feelings.
Despite these successes, the show lacks any real killer tunes. The choric moments are stunning in their volume and the complexity of the different voices, but there is little here for the audience to sink its teeth into. No ‘Memories’, no ‘I dreamed a Dream’, nothing overtly hummable. The production hasn’t quite been scaled down enough for the intimate thrust stage of the Southwark Playhouse either and, when at top speed, can feel a little like watching a John Barrowman concert from six inches away.
There are some howlers in the book too, a Tony-winner remember. Lines like: “There’s water on the floor/ It’s coming under the door/ And behind it I think there’s much more,” made me wonder what else was out that year.
Still, there is certainly a lot to commend in the writing. Yeston and Stone’s take on the story is a lot more sober than Cameron’s and much less hung up on class-struggle than Julian Fellowes’s 2012 TV adaptation. Instead it’s the Babel myth, it’s the story of mankind overreaching itself and coming unstuck. It paints White Star chairman J Bruce Ismay (Simon Green) far too much the villain, of course – are we really to believe that Captain Smith, at the end of a 43-year maritime career, is going to listen to some jumped-up passenger when it comes to the navigation of his ship? But it essentially feels more measured and considerate than it might have done.
The problem is, though, that this is a musical, and without the gloss of Cameron’s sentimental and staggeringly-expensive Romeo and Juliet storyline, or the real edge to appeal to theatre-goers on its own terms, the production feels a little caught between two stools. Titanic the Musical certainly doesn’t sink, but it feels, perhaps, somewhat adrift.