Review: 'The Last Ship' at the Princess of Wales Theatre

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  • Joe Szekeres, Chief Toronto Critic

‘The Last Ship’ sailed triumphantly into the Princess of Wales Theatre on its opening night, and what a tumultuous welcoming reception it received with a standing ovation at the curtain call. This entire company is stellar. Beg, borrow, ask, demand and try to get a ticket if you can.

Inspired by Sting’s 1991 album, The Soul Cages, and his own childhood experiences on the Tyneside, North East of England (and on the Scottish border), ‘The Last Ship’ is an epic account of a family, a community and a great act of defiance when the shipyard closed and ceased operations there. This story has even more of a punch for this Oshawa native when Sting and the cast’s recent appearance in support of UNIFOR and the General Motors plant closure garnered nation-wide attention for the production and for the plight of the hometown autoworker.

‘The Last Ship’ is a gritty story of people who belong somewhere and who have a place in a specific community. In the introductory programme notes, Sting states, “I wanted to give the community where I was born, a voice, to tell a narrative in this form, because it’s a story that hasn’t been told. I want to go back and say thank you [to the community] for what you gave me. You formed me, you formed my ambition.”

59 Productions’ split-level setting was a spectacular precursor to the powerful voice that was soon to echo throughout the theatre. From my seat, I paid close attention to the look of prominent steel and sturdy wood that filled the entire stage. There was an appearance of strength of a community that could survive whatever was thrown at its’ residents. Seb Frost’s gorgeous soundscape of seagulls and ship/fog horns hauntingly echoed throughout the auditorium.

Breathtakingly, realistic scrim projections enhanced so much of the mood and environment as the story continued. At the top of the show, there are storm clouds building on the horizon. Fluid scene changes of projections were a true masterpiece to behold with the eyes. I encourage future audience members just to sit for a minute quietly, take in the surroundings on the stage and listen to the sounds. I was transported away immediately even before the production began.

Three minutes before curtain and the performers entered from the wings and came downstage. Some kibitzed with front row audience members while other actors waved to patrons in the orchestra and balcony. What a terrific hook to engage an audience’s interest. 

And then the grand master himself, Sting, quietly enters from upstage behind some ensemble members. When spotted, there is further tumultuous applause for him. And then, for me, it happened.

Thanks to Musical Director Richard John and Movement Director Lucy Hind, the two opening songs ‘In the Morning’ and ‘We’ve Got Nowt Else’ were just the preamble of this extraordinary company’s vocal work soaring far past the rafters of the Princess of Wales. I had goosebumps at the top of the show which continued more and more as we learn about the community, see the story unfold, and hear the phenomenal vocal ensemble work.

One slight quibble occurred during the first act where the sound balance was not level as the orchestra seemed to overpower several the choral moments where I couldn’t hear the lyrics to the songs. The balance seemed better in the second act, but it’s something that should be attended to immediately especially since the performers have sustained the Geordie dialect of North East England. A note as well for future audiences to pay careful attention to the dialect.

As foreman Jackie White, Sting’s trademark whisky edged voice highlights and enhances his characterization of a man who continues to fight for what he believes is his duty to his shipyard community. As Jackie’s wife, Peg, Jackie Morrison reveals a woman who shows incredible inner strength of character who has seen her fair share of hardships and heartache but will remain strong and stand by her husband no matter what. Ms. Morrison and Sting are in such realistic and believable synchronicity of connection to each other as performers that I felt tears in my eyes many times throughout.

I just wish I was able to mention each performer in this company, but space does not allow me to do so. The parallel love story of Gideon Fletcher (Oliver Savile) and Meg Dawson (Frances McNamee) harmoniously rang true for me as a couple who fell in love when they were young, parted ways, and years later see each other again but this time there is betrayal, hurt, anger and misunderstanding. Ms. McNamee’s ‘If You Ever See Me Talking to s Sailor’ is a tour de force melody of someone who has learned the hard way that life doesn’t always turn out the way she wants.

There are some poignant and heartfelt moments as well. Two that worked beautifully for me were ‘When the Pugilist Learned to Dance’ and ‘Dead Man’s Boots’ (involving Old Joe Fletcher and his young son and grown son, Gideon.) The latter song was extremely haunting as it was a touching moment between father and son who have tried to connect with each other.

Marc Akinfolarin is a robust, self assured and poetic Adrian Sanderson. Annie Grace is a pragmatic by the book, all business Baroness Tynedale. Sean Kearns holds his ground as Freddy Newlands who reminds the community that only 500 people will be hired back if only for awhile.

Final comments: ‘The Last Ship’ is most certainly a story of resilience, of growth, of compassion and of strife.  Most importantly, it serves to remind us of our place within the community in which we grew up and matured. Yes, we may leave that community for whatever reason, but that community has formed us, shaped us and molded us to become who we are. We must never forget that community from which we came.

‘The Last Ship’ runs to March 24 at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King Street West, Toronto. For tickets visit www.mirvish.com or telephone 416.872.1212.

Running Time: 2 hours and 55 minutes with one intermission.

Performers: Sting, Frances McNamee, Jackie Morrison, Oliver Savile, Marc Akinfolarin, Joe Caffrey, Philip Childs, Susan Fay, Orla Gormley, Annie Grace, Rebecca Gilhooley, Sean Kearns, Tom Parsons, Sophie Reid, Jade Sophia Vertannes, Kevin Wathen, Barney Wilkinson, James William-Pattison.

Music and Lyrics: Sting; New Book by: Lorne Campbell; Original Book by: John Logan and Brian Yorkey; Sound Designer: Seb Frost; Lighting Designer: Matt Daw; Musical Director: Richard John; Costume Designer: Molly Einschcomb; Voice: Helen Ashton; Movement Director: Lucy Hind; Associate Director/Dramaturg; Selma Dimitrijevic; Designer: 59 Productions; Director and Book Writer: Lorne Campbell.

Photo of Oliver Savile and Sting by Cylla von Tiedemann.