A musical about one of the largest disasters of the 20th century may seem at first to be a morbid idea, but Titanic The Musical is a stirring tribute to those who sailed aboard the ill-fated ship of dreams.
Unlike the 1997 film, this musical adaptation of the tragedy is based entirely in reality, with each character having a real-life counterpart; the true stories of those aboard are enough to encapsulate the audience. With every audience member having the prior knowledge of the fate of the Titanic, dramatic irony is used to great extent as we see Captain Smith (brilliantly played by Philip Rham) continuously urge the crew to go faster, eager to break records despite warnings.
Again and again we see telegram warning of icebergs ahead being ripped up and ignored, with Bruce Ismay (the ship’s owner, played by Simon Green) wanting nothing more than to make Titanic “a legend” – of course, we all know that will happen, but not in the way he had hoped.
Peter Stone’s book and Maury Yeston’s music and lyrics combine beautifully to allow the audience to empathise with every character. Every person, no matter if they’re passenger or crew, is given their moment to express just what their journey on the “ship of dreams” means for them. The opening number brilliantly captures the excitement and wonder of each person boarding the Titanic. Though they are gazing into the audience, Thom Southerland’s clever direction and the accomplished performances by those onstage lead the audience to believe that they really are looking at “the largest moving object in the world”. By the first triumphant “Sail on!” of the opening song, we all want to sail on too, so captivated by the hope the Titanic holds.
As the Titanic’s journey and the first act of the show get underway, dreams are built through the succession of soaring songs. The musical number Lady’s Maid in particular acts as a haunting song of hope for the third class, a song which is briefly reprised in the second act to remind both audience and characters alike that there is still hope amidst the tragedy of the famously doomed voyage. Because each character is given their chance to tell of what this journey means to them, the first act proves to be a little laborious, and risks stressing the same point too many times. However, this is crucial in setting up dreams that the second act will cruelly destroy.
The pace of the second act becomes frantic as characters realise that their time is running out; tempers flare, promises are broken and trivial disputes pale into nothing once faced with the horrifying reality of what’s happening. Greg Castiglioni’s performance of the 11 o’clock number Mr Andrews’ Vision is unbelievably raw and powerful – we believe his despair and regret as he desperately tries to find what went wrong, and as he observes the final moments of the Titanic and all those who remain on-board. Titanic The Musical does not allow the audience to forget that this was a reality for the thousands who sailed on her, and the countless more affected by the tragedy. As the show comes to a close, a list of those who perished in the 1912 disaster are presented behind the cast, adding a sobering note to the already poignant finale.
David Woodhead’s simple two-tier set design finely depicts the grand ship, with a bolted steel effect applied to the theatre’s proscenium arch, and a single set of moving stairs to mark scene changes throughout the show.
Connections with the audience are also established throughout, with staging that spills off the stage and into the auditorium, characters continuing scenes throughout the stalls, and entering and exiting through the theatre. In a show that relies so heavily on emotional connections to the characters, this creative decision allows the audience to immerse themselves in each person’s story, and we almost feel as though we too are aboard the Titanic. This choice also seamlessly moves director Thom Southerland’s production from the smaller venue of London’s Southwark Playhouse (where this incarnation of the show was born) into the larger space of the Birmingham Hippodrome, maintaining intimacy and keeping the connections that are essential in the telling of such a delicate story.
Further effects are utilised throughout to involve the audience in the show’s narrative. Howard Hudson’s lighting design perfectly captures the glorious luxury of the ship, as well as the icy dread of its impending fate. The point of impact with the iceberg is a shudderingly uncomfortable moment, executed brilliantly through a combination of lighting, sound and a vibration that reverberates around the theatre. This is not a moment to be enjoyed, it is a moment to be feared, and this production allows the audience that feeling of discomfort to again involve them with the character’s stories.
For a story that is now over a century old, Titanic the Musical succeeds in creating a narrative that is completely engaging and empathetic. One can’t help seethe at the unjust treatment of the third class as they are locked below deck simply because of their social standing, nor can we help but chuckle at a millionaire’s ambitions to run for congress because “you don’t have to know anything” – the stark contrast of wealth and how you may be treated because of it is still sadly apparent in the modern world.
Though the world has changed in many ways, the audience is able to relate to the ways in which it hasn’t and this, combined with the excellent performances of the production’s ensemble cast, makes for a show that is at once uplifting and heart-wrenching.