As you take in the autobiographically inspired voyage that unfolds in The Last Ship, with music and lyrics by Sting (Gordon Sumner), it’s impossible not to relate its rough and gritty setting in the Tyne Harbor shipyards of Wallsend to other classic English tales of big industry versus labor — generational novels like How Green Was My Valley and Sons and Lovers.
And although The Last Ship certainly conforms to the template of a Broadway musical, its core is based on the childhood memories that inspired Sting to compose his 1991 concept album The Soul Cages which he dedicated to his diseased father. Many of its songs relate to the theme of ships and the sea, and it includes a conflicted character named Billy, the first son in a family descended from a long line of Tyne Harbor shipyard riveters.
The album went to number one and won Sting his first songwriting Grammy. It also represented the end of a difficult period when he was suffering through an extreme case of writer’s block. It was through a process of looking into his past that he was able to embrace the future that would lead to The Last Ship. Since its first production in Chicago in 2014, The Last Ship has undergone numerous revisions, stagings, and rewrites of its book. But its main attraction has always been Sting’s songs, both those written specifically for the show and those from his albums: “Island of Souls” and “All This Time” (from Soul Cages), “When We Dance” (from Fields of Gold: The Best of Sting 1984–1994), and “Ghost Story” (from Brand New Day).
Wednesday, following a six-week engagement at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto, The Last Ship began a national tour at the Ahmanson Theatre of the Center Theatre Group, where it will play through Feb. 16. Its next port of call will be San Francisco where the production will open at the Golden Gate Theatre on Feb. 20.
The show’s combination of slice-of life-drama and tune-filled musicality is brought to life by a cast that can land its punches musically and dramatically. They are led by Sting as the dock foreman Jackie White, a man dying from mesothelioma after years of working on the chemically coated hulls of newborn ships.
The major part of the action takes place in 1986 during the austerity cutbacks and anti-union edicts of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government. And as it has been for generations of miners and ship builders, the conflict is between profits and people. At the same time, The Last Ship tells a powerful story about a pair of young people, Gideon Fletcher and Meg Dawson (the girl he left behind), and the daughter Gideon never knew he had. In telling their story, the musical moves back and forth in time over a period of 17 years, with Joseph Peacock and Jade Sophia Vertannes as young Gideon and Meg, and the star-turn performances of Oliver Savile and Frances McNamee as their adult incarnations. Their firebrand daughter, Ellen, is played with punkish, in-your-face energy by Sophie Reid.
And while the songs are beautiful and eloquent in their way (especially Sting’s poetic lyrics), it’s the new, grippingly emotional book by Lorne Campbell (based on the original by John Logan and Brian Yorkey) that provides the musical with real emotional grit. Ironically, the book is so strong that it creates a conflict of interest buffeting The Last Ship between its persona as a song-and-dance musical and its character-driven story of class conflict. Because the show feels obliged to satisfy both aspects, it runs almost three hours in length, with a long second act that could easily throw a couple of its jaunty dance numbers overboard.
Sting gives a strong performance as Jackie, who tries to stave off management’s plans to scrap the dockyard’s “last ship” and bankrupt the local workforce. It’s a battle for honor and dignity that he’s forced to fight at the same time as his body fails. Sting is a fine actor, totally at home with this subject, and there’s no missing the signature sound of his singing. Jackie Morrison is also fine as Peggy White, Jackie White’s soulmate and partner.
But it is the tempestuous reunion of Meg, Gideon, and their rebellious daughter (and would-be rocker) Ellen that provides the most emotional tension. During their 17-year separation Meg has survived the humiliation of bearing a child out-of-wedlock in a condemning, predominantly Catholic community; Gideon has gone to sea and never come to terms with the guilt he left behind; while Ellen has developed an impenetrable shell to protect herself, until the father she’s never met enters her life.
The cast also features fine supporting performances by Matt Corner as the malcontent Davey Harrison; Joe Gaffrey as the burly, gruff shop steward Billy Thompson; and David Muscat as management’s hatchet-man Thomas Ashburner.
What really sets The Last Ship apart is the size of its heart. The characters and their conflicts are keenly directed by Lorne Campbell, with Riverdance-influenced choreography by Lucy Hind. It’s no accident that the “last ship,” whose outcome is so in doubt, is named The Utopia. That’s the dream they all wish for — a way for workers and management to come together to create some form of utopian future.