Titanic The Musical | Live Show Review

Scott Matthewman
Tuesday, June 13, 2023

The success of Titanic is its ability to tell a story that has been told multiple times over, and to make it hit home harder than ever

Titanic The Musical
Titanic The Musical

It was meant to inspire a feeling of awe, of monumentalism, but in the end, the name ‘Titanic’ came to signify hubris. The fate of the White Star Line vessel, which sank in April 1912, has become immortalised in popular culture. And while James Cameron’s film has tended to dominate tales of the ship’s maiden (and only) voyage, Titanic The Musical offers a less flashy, more emotional take on the human drama.

Crowd scenes on Southampton dock and, later, on the ship itself teem with life

Rather than telling the story through a fictional romance, like the movie, the musical takes an ensemble viewpoint, following several passengers and crewmates from the ship’s boarding at Southampton and on the journey towards New York.

The scale of the ship is reflected by a full complement of 25 actors – each with named roles, and some of whom further double up. This makes crowd scenes on Southampton dock and, later, on the ship itself teem with life. Yet director Thom Southerland ensures that while scenes look busy, they never sacrifice clarity. David Woodhead’s set design is simple, carried across from this production’s original 2013 run at Southwark Playhouse. His two-storey white railings give an understated impression of a luxury liner.

But it is the people at the heart of the show who make the biggest impression. Book writer Peter Stone ensures that each individual vignette has a purpose: from Bree Smith’s over-eager Alice, a passenger in Second Class with a desire to hobnob with the celebrities in First, to Emily George, Niamh Long and Lucie-Mae Sumner as three young Irish women, all called Kate and all travelling in Third Class with dreams of new lives in America. With each sliver of a story, the social hierarchies on board solidify.

joseph peacock

Joseph Peacock and company (photo: Pamela Raith)

Act One is dedicated to introducing everyone on board, with the result that Maury Yeston’s songs can feel like standalone numbers rather than offering narrative progression. Accompanying them all is our foreknowledge of what is to occur. Playing into this is the fractious relationship between Graham Bickley’s Captain Smith and White Star chairman J Bruce Ismay (Martin Allanson), who wants to push the ship to break records and arrive early in New York. This tussle is largely fictional but it adds tension, while – by contrast – the passengers’ stories continue in ignorance.

The encounter with the iceberg forms the Act One finale, meaning that the latter half of the musical can concentrate on the reactions, the evacuation and the tragedies that ensue. It becomes more compelling, as the arrogance inherent in the ship’s ‘unsinkable’ design becomes all too apparent. Bickley and Allanson, together with Ian McLarnon as ship designer Thomas Andrews, effectively spar as they each attempt to wriggle out of taking any blame.

As events proceed to their grim conclusion, the various strands laid out in Act One start to coagulate. David Delve and Valda Aviks get their chance to shine as elderly couple Isidor and Ida Straus as they make the decision to stay on board together rather than separate. Their mutual expression of love into old age in ‘Still’ provides one of the strongest romantic beats among many.

One aspect that does suffer is the demise of the Third-Class passengers. With so many of the onstage characters coming from First and Second class, the fates of hundreds of others, locked out of even attempting to reach lifeboats, are lost to the waves.

The closing moments of the show are its most memorable and profound. Act One’s triumphant ‘Godspeed Titanic’ is reprised as a eulogy, in front of a list of the more than 1,500 souls who lost their lives.

We feel their loss through even the small scraps of fictionalised accounts we have witnessed. This is the success of Titanic: its ability to tell a story that has been told multiple times over, and to make it hit home harder than ever.

Production information

Music, lyrics Maury Yeston Book Peter Stone

Cast Valda Aviks, Martin Allanson, Graham Bickley, David Delve, Emily George, Barnaby Hughes, Niamh Long, Ian McLarnon, Bree Smith, Lucie-Mae Sumner et al

Direction Thom Southerland Musical direction Ben Papworth Lighting Howard Hudson Sound Andrew Johnson Set, costumes David Woodhead

Mayflower Theatre, Southampton 11-15 April 2023, touring until 5 August 2023

Reviewed on 15 April 2023