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Theatre Reviews Review: It sank on Broadway, but Sting’s The Last Ship finally floats in Toronto

Sting, third from the left, and the cast of The Last Ship.

Cylla von Tiedemann/Courtesy of Mirvish

  • Title: The Last Ship
  • Music and lyrics by: Sting
  • New book by: Lorne Campbell 
  • Director: Lorne Campbell
  • Actors: Sting, Frances McNamee, Oliver Savile, Sophie Reid
  • Company: Mirvish Productions
  • Venue: The Princess of Wales Theatre
  • City: Toronto 
  • Year: Runs to March 24

rating

Sting has written mostly original music for the show.

Cylla von Tiedemann/Courtesy of Mirvish

The Last Ship, a melancholy musical by the English singer/songwriter Sting (and now starring him) inspired by life in the working-class shipbuilding town where he grew up, has pulled into port in Toronto after a long and choppy critical voyage.

The show sank quickly on Broadway in New York, but then resurfaced in better-received form in Newcastle, England.

If the latest version having its Canadian premiere is still far from a perfect musical, The Last Ship nevertheless floats animated by Sting’s clear personal passion for the project and a strong sense of storytelling gained through a significant rewrite by director Lorne Campbell, artistic director of north-east England’s Northern Stage. It won’t razzle-dazzle you, but it is packed with authentic acting and sad songs that echo in your head as you leave the theatre.

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The Last Ship is the latest in a surprising long line of musicals about unions and striking workers – stretching from 1955’s The Pajama Game to 2005’s Billy Elliot and beyond. Set in the town of Wallsend in north-east England 1986, it has two main storylines.

In the first, pragmatic foreman Jackie White (Sting a.k.a. Gordon Sumner) and Marx-quoting union rep Billy Thompson (Joe Caffrey) try to figure out how to respond to news that the shipyard that sustains the town is closing down.

The only offer of ongoing employment on hand from the boss is insulting: Taking apart the last, nearly completed, ship for scrap.

The musical is inspired by life in the working-class shipbuilding town where Sting grew up.

Cylla von Tiedemann/Courtesy of Mirvish

At the same time, Gideon (Oliver Savile) returns to his hometown in the wake of his father’s death, having run away to join the navy 17 years earlier and escape what he saw as a stultifying future in the shipyard.

He left behind a girlfriend Meg (Frances McNamee) – who he quickly discovers upon his return now has a daughter, an aspiring rock musician named Ellie (Sophie Reid), who is 17 years old. You do the math.

The Last Ship does not seem entirely shipshape in its first act. Ellie’s opening monologue is followed by what feels like four opening numbers in a row, then before long we suddenly head into intermission on a plot plateau rather than a cliffhanger.

But the longer second act mostly makes up for that – and the unconventional family reunion between Gideon, Meg and Ellie and the drama by the docks begin to make waves.

As the ex-lovers and their daughter, Savile, McNamee and Reid are all accomplished singer-actor – and McNamee, in particular, brings appealing wit and depth of emotion to her role of a single mother aware of what she’s missed out on, but not bitter and proud of her independence.

It’s subtle and surprising how these three achieve a kind of peace – and, in his rewrite, Campbell mostly avoids romantic clichés.

The Last Ship's strong sense of storytelling is gained through a significant rewrite by director Lorne Campbell.

Cylla von Tiedemann/Courtesy of Mirvish

The story involving foreman Jimmy, played by the show’s famous composer/lyricist, is a little more predictable; from the moment he has a coughing fit in his first scene, you will wonder: Oh Sting, where is thy death?

But the former frontman of The Police acts his inevitable arc with an unassuming honesty. His isn’t a star turn, but an ensemble performance that befits the material – even if is a little physically awkward on stage at times (his arms flapping like empty jacket sleeves).

Sting has written mostly original music for the show, hypnotic hymns and sea shanties. But there are also pre-existing songs such as Island of Souls that sound shoehorned in.

The production is unpretentious, with lots of direct address to the audience, and is physically quite beautiful due to projections that turn expressionistic during the singing and interact brilliantly with the sculptural set. (59 Productions is credited as the designer.)

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Although, admittedly, written by a very rich rock star, The Last Ship has got a union-card authenticity missing from, say, Kinky Boots, the much more successful American musical about an English factory town that saves itself after embracing market innovation. The latter is fun and colourful, but a complete and utter fantasy.

The Last Ship is, ultimately, a fantasy as well – it’s a thrill to watch workers standing up to the boss, and lovers back together. But there’s more than a hint that the conclusion is a chimera. The ship the workers complete is, after all, called Utopia and as Ellie, our unreliable narrator and stand-in for the young Sting, tells us about her community: “We’re story people.”

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