Big ship hits iceberg. Lots of people drown.
19 September 2013
Titanic - Southwark Playhouse, Saturday 27th July 2013
Barrett, the Stoker – James Austen Murray
Lightoller – Dominic Brewer
Kate Mullins – Scarlett Courtney
Bride, the Radio Operator – Matthew Crowe
Kate Murphy – Grace Eccle
Alice Beane – Celia Graham
Edgar Beane – Oliver Hemborough
Ismay – Simon Green
Mr Etches – James Hume
Caroline Neville – Clare Marlowe
Jim Farrell – Shane McDaid
Captain Smith – Philip Rham
Kate McGowan – Victoria Serra
Book – Peter Stone
Music and lyrics – Maury Yeston
Director – Thom Sutherland
MD – Mark Aspinall
Set and Costumes – David Woodhead
Lighting – Howard Hudson
It was the day when the heatwave finally broke, after a week of muggy, vile, humid weather. It was a horrendously sticky evening and a desultory rainstorm wetted the pavements but did nothing to clear the air. It was like walking through soup. And the air conditioning in the theatre had broken down completely. Consequently sitting there waiting for the show to start was like sitting fully clothed in a Turkish bath. Every programme was being pressed into service as a fan and every other scrap of paper in the theatre had been scavenged by those without them. People began wondering aloud whether on payment of a suitable sum the Producer might actually allow the iceberg to make an earlier than scheduled appearance just to lower the temperature in the auditorium, or whether the journey to New York might not actually be in peril if the iceberg had, indeed, already melted. The show started, foreheads glistened, stage makeup began to slide off faces and everyone silently sympathised with men wearing heavy period overcoats. Lines about how unusually cold it was for April were met with rueful laughter. Two-thirds of the way through the first half, the show juddered to a sudden halt. The Director announced that we had hit an iceberg labelled “Health and Safety” and that The Show Could Not Go On because of the temperature in the auditorium; Voyage Suspended until something had been done about it. The audience piled into the lifeboats and waited, bobbing about in the swell. I wondered whether we would ever get to New York at this rate. Some 30 minutes later, the engines restarted, the audience climbed back on board and we were off again . The Band Played On - sans violinist and sans viola who had been unable to keep their instruments in tune as the humidity in the auditorium was making their catgut go all limp and drippy. The cast wrung out their costumes and prepared to hit the iceberg. By the time the Carpathia had delivered the survivors to New York it was gone 11pm, the cast were completely knackered (having already done a matinee that afternoon) and in the audience, T shirts and underwear were clinging to backs and bums like passengers to a lifebelt. Still, we all stood up and applauded like there was no tomorrow – mostly out of sheer relief but also because the cast had stayed at their posts and given the performance with considerable welly right to the bitter end, probably for Equity Minimum. I dread to think what the dressing rooms smelt like the next day.
This is a difficult show to do with a small cast – there are 22 singing roles, as well as a slew of small named speaking roles (many of whom make an appearance in the embarkation scene and then essentially disappear), so there was a lot of doubling up going on, sometimes to the detriment of coherence. Still, they managed, and on the whole managed well. This is also a difficult show to do when your performance area is a “black box” and you have to have audience on three sides. Still, they managed, and managed well. A back wall of black metal panels gave some idea of the scale of the ship (and the enterprise being undertaken) and there was a clever gantry, accessed by tall sets of metal steps on wheels which gave additional performing space and some sense of perspective. A nice directoral touch was to have the names of all those lost in the disaster scroll across the floor in an illuminated “role of honour”
There were some excellent performances. James Austen-Murray made a fine and believable Barrett (the Head Stoker), sporting a pair of shoulders that I would kill for. His duet with Bride, the Radio Operator (Matthew Crowe) was nicely handled direction-wise and was, I thought, underscored with a slight sexual frisson – did the socially maladjusted Bride, happier communicating by morse code than with real people, think that all his all his dreams had come true when a sweaty, beefy stoker wandered into the Telegraph Cabin? Celia Graham handled the role of the irritating Alice Beane and her ferociously difficult solo number with considerable aplomb and James Hume played Mr Etches, the First Class Steward in the style of a slightly affronted heron, exactly how the character should be portrayed. I was less impressed with Dudley Rogers and Judith Street’s performances as Isidor and Ida Strauss and I really, really did not like the direction of their final number. Street was hampered in her performance of what should be a heart-rending duet by trying to clamber into a somewhat unflattering costume while singing it. The role of Mr. Andrews, the architect of Titanic, was watered down almost to the point of invisibility by giving the opening song to Ismay, the owner of the WhIte Star Line. Doing so kept Andrews out of the audience’s field of vision until it was too late for the character to really register. Simon Green was the perfect casting for Ismay – Green does the “conceited tosser” far too well for it to be anything other than who he really is.
The show itself is flawed – its top heavy and there is at least one number (“Doing the latest rag”) that seems superfluous. With its cast of millions it runs the risk of over-egging the pudding and trying to cram too many stories into the mix. It cannot be denied that the problems with this particular performance made the show seem a lot longer than it appears. But I cannot fault the dedication of the cast who gave a sterling performance under extremely trying and difficult conditions. During the lifeboat scenes towards the end there were a couple of individuals on stage who were so “in” their performances that I found it quite distressing to watch them – Scarlett Courtney in her uncredited role of Lady Duff Gordon seemed to be living the part to such an extent that I do wonder how she managed to sleep that night.
A round of applause to all involved for soldering on under incredibly difficult circumstances.
What the critics thought: