The Theatreguide.London Review
Charing Cross Theatre Summer 2016
This musical by Peter Stone (book) and Maury Yeston (songs) won awards on Broadway in 1997 (the same year as James Cameron's film), though its spectacular staging effects may have been more impressive than its content.
In 2013 Thom Southerland directed a highly praised small-scale revival at the Southwark Playhouse, which he revives here to begin his tenure as Artistic Director of the Charing Cross Theatre.
And the overall effect, to borrow some of the musical's vocabulary, is of a First Class production of a Second Class show.
Peter Stone's book is particularly strong in the first half, as a large cast of characters is introduced and effectively turned from one-of-each archetypes into rounded and sympathetic individuals.
But once the iceberg arrives, the narrative is too full of events to have much time for characterisation, and the musical's second act is rushed and, a few strong moments apart, oddly uninvolving.
The touchstone for this show is the almost contemporaneous Ragtime, not just because both cover a similar historical period, but because both attempt to evoke the entire age through individual stories.
And while Titanic does introduce us to a cross-section of society, only very occasionally and briefly do the individual stories expand to suggest a larger world.
One such moment is in the Third Class passengers' song Lady's Maid, in which the dreams of those seeking a new life in America are particularly moving in their modesty and simplicity.
Generally, while Maury Yeston's lyrics are occasionally evocative, his melodies are at best serviceable and never memorable, and only a very few other musical numbers really register.
There's a nice counterpoint as a seaman's yearning for his girl back home overlaps with the telegraph operator's wonderment at his new technology, a spirited ragtime dance (nicely staged by Cressida Carre) for the First Class passengers, and a lovely and loving ballad for a couple (Judith Street and Dudley Rogers ) who choose to die together.
Peter Stone builds his narrative on four main groups, the authority figures (Captain, ship designer and owner) and a couple from each cabin Class and social class.
A titled lady who would be expected in First Class is hiding and eloping with her merchant lover in Second, the innocently social-climbing wife of another merchant keeps sneaking into First to rub shoulders with the rich and famous, and a feisty and determined Irish lass in Third sets her eyes on both an attractive young man and a new life in America.
Dramatically, the villain of the piece is ship owner Ismay (David Bardsley), whose economic decisions – fewer lifeboats means more money-making cabins – and demands – a dangerously northern course and high speed, just for publicity value – are blamed more than the iceberg for the tragedy.
And while Captain Smith (Philip Rham) and designer Andrews (Sion Lloyd) are treated with a mix of blame and sympathy, the musical's heroes are all heroines.
Helena Blackman as the runaway bride sings beautifully, though she isn't given any particularly strong songs, and too soon fades from the narrative.
Victoria Serra invests the Irish girl with an attractive mix of spunk, sexuality and a steely core, while Claire Machin brings warmth to the comic figure of the social climber by filling her with innocent good spirits.
Thom Southerland, who has established himself as London's premier director of small-scale musicals, achieves the high standard we have cone to assume from him, both in cleverly adapting the big Broadway original to a smaller stage without any loss – and, indeed, some increase – in power, and in leading his cast to nuanced and attractive performances.
His whole first season at the Charing Cross Theatre is made up of challenging musicals – Allegro, Ragtime and Death Takes A Holiday – and the excellence of this Titanic inspires excited anticipation of the others.
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Review - Titanic - Charing Cross Theatre 2016