When you think of London theatre, it is normal to only think of the large lavish theatres with their many levels, huge stages and capacity of well over a thousand people. It is these theatres that come to mind when you think ‘West End Musical’, but no, not in the case of this one musical currently receiving praise in the heart of London’s Theatre Land.
The Charing Cross Theatre, sitting 265 people, sits nestled in the Arches underneath Charing Cross Station. It is here, in this lovely intimate little theatre, that you will find the beautifully staged, beautifully sung and beautifully tragic Titanic.
Over one hundred years after the sinking of the so called ‘unsinkable’ R.M.S Titanic, I think it is fair to say that most people know the story to an extent. A huge grand ship travelling to New York, carrying thousands of people, hits an iceberg and disappears beneath the icy waves. Ask most people and they will be able to say at least a few ideas to what happened aboard the ill-fated liner. Not enough lifeboats, badly designed perhaps, going too fast too far north for the season?
But this production, first seen in London back in 2013 at the Southwark Playhouse, tells the stories of the passengers and crew aboard. No Jack and Rose, no ‘My heart will go on’ but stories based on real people that were aboard Titanic ranging from the third class passengers ‘the three Kates’ to the Captain E.J Smith and owner Joseph Bruce Ismay.
Because of the theatre’s small size, the staging is simplistic but is really all this production needs. A deck with three staircases (one movable) makes up the set, along with a number of smaller set pieces, wheeled on and off throughout the show, a dining table and telegraph operators desk for example. The movable pieces of set are used so seamlessly merging one scene into another and are also cleverly used to create the illusion of the sinking ship on the small stage.
Twenty people make up the cast, most doubling up to play two characters each, and in places more. The costume changes are quick and executed in such a way that it doesn’t become confusing as to who is who. Niall Sheehy, for example, changes characters multiple times from coal covered stoker Barrett to multi-millionaire Benjamin Guggenheim and performs them as two very different characters. Each character is so developed, unique and well acted that there is no worry of confusion.
Now, in a story as tragic as that of Titanic, you wouldn’t think that there would be any possibility of a comedic break. However, this does come in the form of Alice Beane, played here by Claire Machin. Second class passenger Alice dreams of the first class luxury, rubbing elbows with the elite. Her introductions of the first class passengers in the opening number will make you smile along with her desire to look her best when the disaster strikes. First class crew member Etches (played by James Gant) also has his comedic moments, remaining serious at most times yet tempted by glasses of champagne left on the table after the captains dinner.
Each passenger and crew member’s story will pull at the heart strings, from third class Kate McGowan’s (Victoria Serra) dream of being a grand lady in America to a young Bell Boy’s (Luke George) excitement on launching day all too unaware of the tragedy that awaits them. A poignant moment I feel I have to particularly praise is ‘The proposal/the night was alive’ where we meet Bride (Played by Matthew Crowe), a telegraph operator, lonely other than the voices he hears over the telegraph throughout the night, as he helps stoker Barrett send a message to his loved one back in England.
I think the most touching and in a way heartbreaking thing about this show is seeing the joy and hopefulness in all the passengers as they board the ship of dreams for it’s maiden voyage. They all have dreams of what will happen when they reach America and for the crew coming home to loved ones after the voyage. The audience, of course, all know that for the vast majority of the passengers and crew, it won’t be a happy ending. Yet, in a strange way, you find yourself hoping that they will find a happy ending and survive. ‘Farewell my darling, I’ll be back before the fortnight has passed’ they claim. That’s the tragedy there, the irony that the audience know exactly the terrible fate that awaits them.
For the tragedy itself, the build up to the iceberg is done amazingly well. With the hauntingly beautiful mix of songs swelling together as the passengers dance and enjoy the clear evening on the voyage, we see Frederick Fleet (played by Rob Houchen) with those immortal words ‘Iceberg, straight ahead’.
In conclusion, I walked into the Charing Cross Theatre heaving never heard any of the music and not knowing the stories of these characters. I walked in having heard good things and I must say that this beautiful production deserves every drop of praise that it has received. I went into the show open minded and came out in love with this show. So in love, in fact, that I returned to the show the next week to enjoy it again. The music is wonderful, some songs sweet (still), some heartbreaking (We’ll meet tomorrow), some rousing (Godspeed Titanic) and some catchy enough to be stuck in my head all week (the latest rag). The cast is incredible and sing the show amazingly. I had been lucky enough to see Rob, Niall and James previously in Les Miserables and Claire previously in Memphis and it was wonderful to see them again in this gorgeous production.
I simply couldn’t recommend a trip to see this show enough. Yes, the story is tragic but the way in which it is portrayed on the stage is staggeringly beautiful and so well done. It will pull at the heartstrings and make you really think about those involved in that tragedy from over one hundred years ago.
Running until August 6th at the Charing Cross Theatre, Titanic the musical is a show that I will never forget seeing and will always be glad that I thought yeah, I’ll give that a go.