Southwark Playhouse, London
Music and lyrics by Maury Yeston
Book by Peter Stone
Directed by Thom Southerland
Earlier this year, the Southwark Playhouse slipped its moorings at London Bridge and headed south to Elephant and Castle. Now, in her first London production of 2013, Danielle Tarento cracks a bottle of champagne across the theatre’s bows with her production of Maury Yeston’s Tony winning show Titanic taking up an August residency at the venue.
This producer's form remains impeccable. Selecting trusted talent Thom Southerland to envision the work and with Cressida Carre’s choreography, David Woodhead’s inspired design all railings, upper decks and rope and the lighting wizardry of Howard Hudson, the essence of The White Star Line’s doomed flagship is beautifully evoked.
Yeston premiered his work on Broadway in 1997, just a few months before James Cameron’s movie was to ensure that the whole world knew what happened on that fateful night in April 1912. Whilst Yeston's show opened before the movie, watching his musical in 2013 we find that it teaches us nothing new. We already know that many of the ship's officers were noble, that the owner was ruthless, that some men were heroic and that passengers in 3rd class and steerage were treated appallingly. Yeston's melodies (mostly unfortunately forgettable) don't age well and not for the first time his lyrics are found to be lacking in substance. An epic story demands a deep and epic treatment. Yeston's analysis runs aground in very shallow waters.
So hurrah for Tarento and her team. Philip Rham quite literally is Captain Smith. His bearded poise and weary acceptance of Ismay, the owner’s, persistent demands for reckless speed through a treacherous ice field, is worth the price of admission alone. Rham’s patrician Captain exemplifies both the steel and responsibility of his command yet also the elegant and dignified courtesy of the time. Simon Green’s despicable Ismay is another fine performance, even if he has been written as little more than a pantomime villain. Where Smith is a finely fleshed out man of handsome character, Green's Ismay can at times be imagined stroking an evil moustache as his lust for speed and profit over safety condemns the journey, such is the cliche of his character. Greg Castoglioni is Andrews the ships architect, one of several portentous players who caution Smith against reckless speed. His is a measured portrayal of a man placed in desperate circumstances.
The passenger list has some first class gems. Celia Graham maintains her reputation for excellence as Alice Beane a desperate social climber, whilst below decks Victoria Serra as a shamed pregnant Irish lass off to make a new life in the New World puts in a stylish turn along with Shane McDaid as the charming young lad who falls for her. Veterans Judith Street and Dudley Rogers provide a rare moment of authentic poignancy as elderly millionaires who reject the lifeboats, electing for an icy death in each others arms and James Hume as their champagne pouring steward also puts in a convincing and subtly understated performance of profound tragedy.
The design is brilliant in its suggestion of the ship's famous lines. Tarento avoids expensive gimmickry, relying instead on a pure simplicity of image and the audience's fertile imagination, pre-fuelled thanks to our familiarity with the Cameron oscar-winner. When her Titantic finally and famously rears up, with horizontal decking horrifically becoming the sheerest of deathly cliff faces, the effect is a perfect combination of desperately beautiful stagecraft and Southerland's classy direction.
Like a classic albeit tragically true fairy tale, we know Titanic's story before we take our seats. Tarento's take on history is nothing less than respectful and humbling and she tells it with production values that continue to re-define excellence in London's off-West End.
Runs until 31 August 2013
Runs until 31 August 2013