David Mirvish, Karl Sydow & Kathryn Schenker/The Last Ship, music and lyrics by Sting, book and direction by Lorne Campbell, Princess of Wales Theatre, Feb 9 to Mar. 24. Tickets available at TicketKing, 416-872-1212 or www.mirvish.com.
The musical The Last Ship makes two very strong impressions. The first is that Sting is a supremely gifted songwriter. The second is that the British cast is filled with outstanding singers.
Born Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner in Wallsend, Tyne and Wear, England, Sting rose to fame fronting the rock group The Police. His musical, The Last Ship, that he toiled over for fifteen years, was inspired by both Sting’s difficult relationship with his father, and the death of the shipbuilding industry in his hometown. On a grander scale, the musical is a memorial to the gutting of the British industrial heartland by various Conservative governments.
Like Gideon Fletcher (Oliver Savile), a major character in The Last Ship, all the young Sting wanted to do was run away from Wallsend in the north-east of England near Newcastle. In the musical, Gideon returns to Wallsend after seventeen years to find that the local shipyard is about to close down throwing 2000 people out of work. He also discovers that he has a daughter Ellen (Sophie Reid) whose mother is his teenage love Meg Dawson (Frances McNamee). Two other major characters are Jackie White (Sting), the yard’s foreman, and Billy Thompson (Joe Caffrey), the union boss. Jackie’s wife Peggy (Jackie Morrison), also plays a key role when the striking workers occupy the shipyard. The troubled love story and the labour unrest are the two drivers of The Last Ship.
The show that we’re seeing in Toronto has been completely retooled from the failed musical that lasted a bare four months on Broadway in 2014/15. Sting has told various interviewers that the new book by director Lorne Campbell beefs up both the romantic and political components. Key characters like the priest Father O’Brian have been dropped, while others, like Ellen, have been added. We also have a Margaret Thatcher-like Conservative cabinet minister (Annie Grace) paying a visit to the shipyard dispensing her doom and gloom to the workers. This 2018 version had a wildly successful tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland (without Sting in the cast). David Mirvish saw the show in Dublin, and that is how The Last Ship has arrived in Toronto, with the proviso that Sting plays Jackie White.
Sting’s score is simply wonderful. It moves between driving Celtic rhythms to sweet love songs, from rousing anthems to poignant ballads. Whether solos or ensembles, every tune is memorable, every lyric to the point. The incredible cast of singers performs from the heart, particularly McNamee and Morrison. In fact, if truth be told, Sting is perhaps the weakest singer of the lot, but he gives Jackie White dignity and grace, and we see in his performance a broken man with one last fight to fight.
The story itself, despite the new book, is pretty slim — basically serving as a slender chain to hang Sting’s marvellous songs on. The action does move slowly. Nonetheless, the fierce energy of the cast, coupled with the dazzling set, comprised of scaffolding and projections innovatively designed by a company called 59 Productions, makes for a strong theatrical experience. And let’s not forget Sting’s brilliant Tony Award-nominated score.
New Yorkers clearly did not take kindly to the Geordie (Tyneside) accents or the plight of English out-of-work shipbuilders, but the old Toronto that was, used to be considered the last outpost of the British Empire. We still have a connection with the putative mother country, and The Last Ship should find a sympathetic audience here, as we also witness Ontario’s own industrial heartland being shredded to nothing.