Titanic the Musical – Birmingham Hippodrome

Winford Hunter

Book: Peter Stone

Music and Lyrics: Maury Yeston

Director: Thom Sutherland

Most people will admit to a passing knowledge of RMS Titanic, the largest moving object on earth, apinnacle of engineering and, of course, unsinkable. And how that bluff was horrifically called one night in icy seas when an iceberg was struck and the ship sank, with the loss of over 1500 souls. Some might also recall how there were insufficient lifeboats for all the passengers and crew, or that she was steaming at full speed into an area in which other ships were repeatedly reporting icebergs. What exactly went on during that fatal voyage cannot be known. And there’s the rub for the creative minds behind a show based on that voyage: the known storyline is pretty thin with limited scope for plot twists or character development.

In the programme, Maury Yeston, the show’s composer and lyricist, explains the motivation in creating such a show. His discussion pivots around the human ability to dream – the designers and makers of Titanic who dreamt of a new era of fast, safe and comfortable transatlantic travel, and the dreams of those aboard, seeking new lives, or consolidating their existing success. To this end, the show focuses on some trios who were aboard Titanic’s maiden voyage: the chairman of the White Star Line, J Bruce Ismay, the naval architect, Thomas Andrews and the captain, Edward Smith; three crew members, stoker Fred Barrett, Lookout Harold Fleet and telegrapher Harold Bride; and representatives of first, second and third class passengers. Britain’s rigid class structure is evident in the treatment and depiction of the different groups aboard even as many dream of a fairer life in the New World.

Before the interval, we meet all of these characters and begin to get to know their dreams and aspirations, whether that’s to be a Lady’s Maid in America or to head the most prestigious passenger line. And of course, even as we hear their dreams for the future, we cannot unknow the final outcome, adding levels of poignancy to the dialogue.

Yeston took the decision to ensure that the music was either authentic of the era or a reasonable facsimile thereof – no anachronistic pop songs here. And that decision is vindicated as we enter the Edwardian era to sail with Titanic’s ship’s company. Rich orchestrations fill the auditorium and fine voices soar as the characters elucidate their dreams in this almost entirely sung-through production. There are occasional sound balance issues, meaning that some phrases are lost, but this does not detract.

Thom Sutherland’s direction and David Woodhead’s design come together to give a free-flowing production. Costumes are authentic and colourful while the set and lighting are more monochrome. We are constantly reminded that on board space is limited, even for the wealthiest, as the backdrop is of riveted panels. A single arch and movable stairs transport us to and from the bridge and the various decks effectively.

Martin Allinson’s Ismay is played as a hardnosed executive, for whom speed and prestige are all. His faith in the ship is absolute if misplaced. Ian McLarnon brings a touch of caution to architect Andrews – this was, after all, still an unproved ship – and Graham Bickley ensures his Captain Smith plies a course somewhere between them, steadily increasing speed and trusting to luck and his lookouts to avoid disaster. Alice Beane (second-class passenger) is brought to vivid and excited life by Bree Smith as she is desperate to rub shoulders with the First Class elite. The enduring love story of Isidor and Ida Strauss (David Delve and Volda Aviks) is sympathetic and moving, while the idealism and faith in technology of telegraph operator Harold Bride (Alastair Hill) is clear. The sheer vivacity of the third-class passengers is well brought to Technicolor life in Lucie-Moe Sumner’s Kate McGowan and her growing relationship with Jim Farrell (Chris Nevin).

Like the ship, this production is epic in scale, big cast, big voices, big music: visually and aurally, it is quite stunning, with some scenes, especially towards the end, that are truly poignant and moving, However, the laudable desire to showcase the varying experiences of the different groups means that some parts are episodic and there’s a feeling that not all of the stories are satisfyingly resolved. Even so, It’s an entertaining and instructive evening, and well worth a visit.

Runs until: 22 April 2023 and on tour

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