TITANIC THE MUSICAL

★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.   at _BIRMINGHAM HIPPODROME.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _22nd APR.

April 18, 2023

images © Pamela Raith.

A challenge: strip any particular adaptation of the Titanic tragedy of its historical framing, and describe what you are left with.

The most immediate – not to mention culturally indelible – is James Cameron’s 1997 Oscar-gobbling blockbuster. But take away the actual Titanic from, well, Titanic, and what are you left with? For the most part, it’s an action movie hinged upon a tragic tale of star-crossed romance.

For ubiquitous though the harrowing events of April 1912 may be, there’s no singular, definitive Titanic ‘story’, outside of that of historical accounts and National Geographic specials.

Strip Titanic the Musical of its hull, and the bones of what’s left behind paint something of a puzzling picture.

A musical that is unquestionably an ensemble piece, and one that is regularly rousing, decadently staged and performed. Yet, for all of its flourishes and gorgeous stagecraft, it’s difficult not to leave feeling visually and audibly wowed, yet strangely unmoved.

Peter Stone and Maury Yeston have crafted a show of two distinct halves. No prizes for guessing where intermission lands. In what registers as a very conscious attempt to both move away from the doe-eyed romance of Winslet and DiCaprio, whilst also reflecting this ‘floating city’ as a vessel of truly many, the first half bounces around a surprisingly broad cast of characters, both passenger and crew. There’s excitable newlywed Alice Beane (a spirited Bree Smith), who offers up some of the more interesting flashes of character as she defies class restrictions to hobnob amongst the aristocrats and millionaires, fussy yet well-meaning steward Mr Etches (Barnaby Hughes), hesitant First Officer, William Murdoch (Billy Roberts) and hiss-worthy ‘villain’ of the piece, J Bruce Ismay (Martin Allanson) to name but a few.

The problem is, despite all being named after genuine persons on the doomed voyage, and the performances being strong across-the-board, outside of a handful of exceptions, much of the character work here is kept at a distinctly surface level (to pardon a slightly awkward pun). There’s also a veritable sea of young, budding and potentially doomed romances that scarcely register beyond the merit of their performers. Even earnest, salt-of-the-Earth stoker, Frederick (Adam Filipe, in sublime voice), one of the show’s best characters and finest performances both, has his story wrapped around a love waiting for him ashore.

“…despite all being named after genuine persons on the doomed voyage… much of the character work here is kept at a distinctly surface level”

Come the iceberg and inevitable calamity that follows, it’s surprising how quickly Titanic jetties a significant chunk of the cast of characters it spends much of its pleasant, meandering first half establishing, almost the point of anticlimax. Many of the stories we’ve been following for the best part of two hours are wrapped up with little individuality or musical egress, in a single (admittedly quite rousing) ensemble number that quite literally bids most of its cast – and dynamics – adieu. And, as impressively staged as the final moments of the liner are, it feels odd that in such a collective piece, we’re here, pinpoint-focused on just one character, even if it is Ian McLarnon’s fantastic take on engineer Thomas Andrews.

It makes for a jarringly incongruent second half, which repeatedly staggers and swerves between ratcheting up the tension and delivering the occasional moment of genuinely thrilling staging, where it seems like the ‘musical’ element of this Titanic is really dialling up the knots and finding it sea legs – see, for instance, a heated, three-way blame-laying tussle between the ship’s bigwigs. It’s just a shame that it almost immediately lapse into more languid moments of sipping champagne and character pontification. The sense of momentum, tension and stakes of Titanic the Musical seem to hit more unexpected obstacles than its namesake.

“…you’d have to go within the vicinity of Les Misêrables to find grandiose choral numbers this rousing.”

It’s far from a lost cause. Given the events it takes inspiration from, the show keeps things suitably serious and sombre, nigh-operatic (even to the point of occasioinally feeling self-serious almost to the creeping edge of parody). And you’d have to go within the vicinity of Les Misêrables to find grandiose choral numbers this rousing. Practically the entire company are offered at least glimpses of moments to shine, and much of Yeston’s music in the first half in particular at least aims for Boublil and Schönberg, occasionally coming surprisingly close. Some wistful ‘I wants’ around dinner tables of the various classes proves particularly delightful early on, whilst Valda Aviks and David Delve do much of the affecting and emotional heavy lifting later on.

There’s no denying that it’s a truly sumptuous production, too – Howard Hudson’s moody, evocative lighting, and David Woodhead’s tremendous set design and costume work all look and feel transportive, high-budget. In fact, the parallels to the doomed liner herself are myriad. Titanic the Musical is grand, lavish and impressive. At two hours and fourty minutes, it’s no whippet, and offers up plenty to be awed by.

“grand, lavish and impressive”

By the finale, though, as the names of all those poor souls lost in the tragedy adorn the stage, there’s a definite sense that it isn’t all landing quite as profoundly or movingly as it perhaps ought. It harkens back to that original stripped-bare conundrum – this Titanic doesn’t quite seem to know what it is, or wants to be.

Indeed, for all its opulence and aesthetic grandeur, for its numerous moments of stirring bombast, Titanic the Musical feels as though you’ve witnessed something that your mind and brain are telling you is impressive, rather than the heart.

As a feat of theatrical engineering, she’s a marvel.

But as a moving, engaging and purposeful piece of musical theatre storytelling, Titanic the Musical feels strangely hollow and, dare we say it, a little lost at sea.

Stirring performances, a rousing ensemble and some terrific staging all help keep this ‘Titanic’ mostly afloat, but a muddied structure and focus make for a strangely hollow experience. Still, there’s mercifully no Celine Dion.

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