The newly relocated Southwark Playhouse’s maiden voyage hit some pretty choppy waters. After reopening in May, the first production, ‘Tanzi Libre’, was cancelled due to injury, while the follow up, ‘The Moment of Truth’, was received tepidly – a problem when you’re the biggest fringe theatre in London and have a lot of seats to fill.
It’s ironic then that ‘Titanic’ should be the show to steady the ship. Ironic, but not surprising: musical theatre director Thom Southerland and his team were a major reason for the Playhouse’s success at its previous venue, scoring hit after hit with high-class, high-octane productions of obscure American musicals.
This intimate revival of Maury Yeston’s 1997 musical about maritime history’s most obsessed-upon health and safety failure essentially repeats the trick. It dispenses with the spectacle that defined the show’s notoriously expensive Broadway run, instead relying upon intimacy, energy and a polished cast of unknowns for its special effects.
That’s enough to force a success out of the first half: Yeston’s literate lyrics are beautifully crafted, and having the cast of 20 belt them out a couple of metres away from your face is irresistibly spine-tingling. However, ‘Titanic’ is as short of memorable tunes as its namesake was of lifeboats, which also draws attention to the lack of plot. Instead, disparate groups of couples potter around, dispensing variants on ‘ooh, look at this ship’.
But the more characters we’re introduced to in the first half, the more get to die nobly in the barnstorming tear-jerker of a second. With the vessel finally sinking, the production gains a sense of purpose, Yeston’s sophisticated wordplay coming into its own as class tensions erupt in the scrabble for lifeboats, and the triumvirate of ship Captain Smith (Philip Rham), shipbuilder Thomas Andrews (Greg Castiglioni) and owner J Bruce Ismay (Simon Green) emerge as the show’s tragic anti-heroes, spurred on to disaster by ruinous pride.
‘Titanic’ could definitely do with a prune, but Southerland’s typically enjoyable production papers over most of the cracks – a night to remember..
By Andrzej Lukowski