Titanic, Charing Cross Theatre, London ★★★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

It was, to begin with, a monument to luxury, but ended as a shrine to hubris. The largest ship in its existence at its launch, the RMS Titanic was White Star Lines’ answer to Cunard’s dominance of transatlantic passenger routes. Unable to beat the Lusitania and Mauritania for speed, the Titanic was part of a new class of liners dripping in luxury – at least, for those passengers in first and second class.

Of course, these days many people know of the story of Titanic’s fateful maiden voyage through the 1997 movie. But that same year saw the emergence of a Broadway treatment of the same story, and which first docked in the UK at Southwark Playhouse in 2013. That production’s director, Thom Southerland, now in place as Charing Cross Theatre’s new artistic director, has brought his interpretation back as his debut production – and has found the perfect vehicle for the venue’s relaunch.

Rather than fabricating a melodramatic romance to weave together the stories of lives on board, Peter Stone’s book and Maury Yeston’s songs concentrate on tales based on real life passengers and crew. Chief among these are Claire Machin’s social climber Alice Beane, forever sneaking into first class to the consternation of her long-suffering husband (a stoic Peter Prentice), while Victoria Serra and Shane McDaid provide some sweet moments as the Irish couple in steerage who meet on board, and who decide to face their future in America together.

Counteracting the sweetness in the passengers is the tension between the boat’s designer Thomas Andrews (Siôn Lloyd), its captain (Philip Rahm) and the White Star chairman Bruce Ismay, an impressive turn by David Bardsley. In truth, the character of Ismay is the furthest removed from truth, the character’s constant demands to push the ship faster supported more by folklore (from the movie A Night to Remember onwards) than the facts. But every good story demands its villains, and Ismay is Titanic’s. Bardsley keeps the tension going throughout, his pressures pressing the ship on to its fate in Act I, and an impressive trio with Lloyd and Rahm in the second act as he seeks to absolve himself from any blame.

Elsewhere, everywhere one looks there are impressive performances, from Niall Sheehy’s stoker to Helena Blackman’s glorious vocals as an upper class woman absconding to America with her non-U lover. Especially sweet are Dudley Rogers and Judith Street as Isidor and Ida Straus, the old couple who elect to stay together to the very end.

But waiting in the wings since curtain up is a certain large, icy guest star. The collision brings an exciting climax to Act I, realised through great sound design by Andrew Johnson and lighting by Howard Hudson. The actual sinking is realised as well as could be on a fringe budget – but as David Woodhead’s gorgeous set gives itself to the waves, it is really the characters and the music which sell the tragedy. Always beautiful throughout, Maury Yeston’s score takes the themes which have been developed with such care throughout, crashing them together and rending them asunder to tremendous effect.

The cast of twenty – still large by off-West End standards – are still required to double or triple up in multiple roles in order to portray the thousands of the ship’s manifest. But despite a couple of ill-fitting costumes in order to satisfy some quick changes, nothing ever feels forced. And by the time the show comes to pay tribute to the more than 1,500 people who lost their lives, the audience has been completely drawn in to Yeston and Stone’s world, and every one of those deaths is felt.

And that is the power of this musical, and especially of this production: a story which has been told over and over feels fresh, thrilling and new. And as the start of a new era at Charing Cross Theatre, this is a maiden voyage that is an unmitigated success.

Titanic continues until August 6, 2016. For more details, visit charingcrosstheatre.co.uk

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