“In every age, mankind attempts to fabricate great works at once magnificent and impossible,” sings the architect Thomas Andrews at the top of the show. His “great work” is, of course, the Titanic, which sank on its maiden voyage on April 15, 1912. But Andrews could easily be singing about the show itself – a chamber version of Maury Yeston and Peter Stone’s Tony-Award-winning Broadway hit (scaled down by the duo), which attempts to represent the disaster in a small theatre with a cast of just 20. Thankfully, their ambition is more successfully realised than Andrews’s.
With some slick doubling, the stage becomes a crammed-to-bursting ship – a never-ending stream of passengers, sailors and cabin crew bustling past our eyes. But the show’s smartest move is in its focus on just a few characters, each named after a real person who boarded the ship.
They are not universally engaging, it must be said, but the stars outnumber the weaker links and carry them with ease. Victoria Serra blends desperate hope with winning courage as Kate McGowan from Third Class, leaving Ireland in search of a better life in America. And Claire Machin is a firm audience favourite as Alice Beale from Second Class, whose shameless attempts to rub shoulders with millionaires end with her joining the “same lifeboat as the Astors”.
Thom Southerland’s direction is finely detailed and makes full use of David Woodhead’s sumptuous costumes and simple, flexible set – a set of ship railings and a moveable staircase. But there are moments that beg for more liveliness, most notably the escalating discussions between safety-conscious Captain Smith and the financier J Bruce Ismay, who is eager to test the ship’s limits, which feel stilted and, after a few rounds, repetitive.
Such moments are all but forgotten, though, when the cast begins to sing, powering through Yeston’s challenging score with confidence and flare. The songs themselves sit within prime goose-bump territory, from the rousing, bittersweet “Godspeed Titanic”, which tops off a bombastic opening sequence, to the haunting “No Moon”, describing the eerie calmness just before the iceberg hits.
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