Theatre review: Titanic, Southwark Playhouse, London


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The Independent Culture

The cover, which has been ‘The prophets of doom had a field day over Maury Yeston's musical Titanic when it was launched on Broadway in 1997 ahead of James Cameron's blockbuster cinematic weepie.  Technical glitches during the previews and a rumour-mill drooling with anticipatory schadenfreude convinced wiseacres that the $10 million dollar show, like the eponymous vessel, was on a collision course with disaster.

But despite mainly unfavourable notices, this supposed folly – with a story and book by Peter Stone – remained afloat for two years, picking up 5 Tony Awards including the one for Best Musical. 

Now Southwark Playhouse is presenting the European premiere of a brilliantly scaled-down chamber version of the piece, directed by Thom Southerland who won renown here for knock-out revivals of Parade and Mack and Mabel.  

The Titanic may once have been “the largest moving object in the world” but this production is a hymn to the idea that 'small is beautiful'. The contrast between the epic nature of the story and the intimacy of the venue is superbly exploited, generating an emotional power that threatens to blast the roof off. You're so close to the performers that your entire body seems to resonate like a struck tuning-fork when the excellent company gather at the start to give a thrillingly full-throated rendition to the heart-catching anthem “God Speed Titanic”. 

Yeston (author of Nine and Grand Hotel) has always excelled at chorales and at songs in which characters who are at variance interweave melodically. It's a gift on stirring display here in a show where the “ship of dreams” itself (as a symbol of glorious aspiration, class-conflict and human hubris) is the protagonist rather than any of the teeming cross-section of passengers it deftly marshals. 

Taking on multiple roles, Southerland's cast nip up and down the social ladder (from stokers and Irish immigrants to toffs and aristos) with extraordinary aplomb. Inevitably, the characterisation is a bit generic but Yeston and Stone contrive situations where the representative function of these individuals is both registered and transcended as in a beautiful, funny-sad double love-song where the shy young telegraph operator (enchantingly played Matthew Crowe) sings of his devotion to a new technology that has freed him from his isolation at the same time as Barrett the stoker (James Austen-Murray) dictates to him a proposal of marriage to his girl back in Nottingham. 

The cracking cast do splendid justice to a beguiling score whose influences range from Stanford and Elgar to Scott Joplin and Gilbert and Sullivan. From my look-out post, I'd judge that the enterprise is on a collision course with glory. 

To August 31; 0207 407 0234