by Lynn on March 21, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Music and lyrics by Sting

New Book by Lorne Campbell

Original book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey

Directed by Lorne Campbell

Designed by 59 Productions

Sound by Seb Frost

Lighting by Matt Daw

Costumes by Molly Einschomb

Orchestrations by Rob Mathes

Cast: Marc Akinfolarin

Joe Caffrey

Philip Childs

Susan Fay

Rebecca Gilhooley

Orla Gormley

Annie Grace

Sean Kearns

Frances McNamee

Jackie Morrison

Tom Parsons

James William Pattison

Sophie Reid

Oliver Saville


Jade Sophia Vertannes

Kevin Wathen

Barney Wilkinson

A valiant effort to tell the story close to Sting’s heart of the closing of a shipyard in Sting’s home town, but alas the effort is thwarted by a book that is confusing in the storytelling (though strong in character) and a blaring, distorting sound system.

 The Story. My travels for the most part are finished so I was able to finally see this March 19.

Wallsend, North East England, 1986. The main industry of this seaside town is shipbuilding and the shipyard is struggling to sell its ships. The people of the town are told that production will stop and the ship they are building will be dismantled for scrap. The workers and their wives protest, argue, wrangled amongst themselves. They fret about what to do. It seems hopeless. Then they get a wild idea.

There are many story lines here with a major one being that of Gideon Fletcher and his love of Meg Dawson. When Gideon was seventeen he left Wallsend, vowing never to go into the shipyard. He wanted adventure and to get out of there and he wanted Meg to go with him. She refused. She didn’t see or hear from him for seventeen years. That will certainly put a crimp in a relationship.

 The Production. (Note: The Last Ship opened on Broadway in 2014 to mixed reviews. The book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey was a problem. The show struggled to find its audience. Sting even stepped into the production for several weeks to bolster the box office. It wasn’t enough to keep the show open and it finally closed. In 2017 the show was revisited by Lorne Campbell, the artistic director of the Northern Stage Company of Newcastle upon Tyne. He wrote a new book for the show and directed it as well. The new production opened at Northern Stage with Sting in a major role. It then went on a UK tour and that is the production playing here until March 24.)

While I won’t compare the Broadway production and this one of The Last Ship (totally serves no purpose except to show off and who needs that), I will make general and specific comments in context.

Lorne Campbell has cut some characters from the Broadway version and amalgamated some aspects of those cut characters into the remaining characters in this version. He has nicely fleshed out many characters so they are more three dimensional. This is certainly true of the adult Gideon (Oliver Saville) and the adult Meg (Frances McNamee.) McNamee in particular is feisty, confident and full of conflicting emotions when it comes to Gideon who comes back after all those years. She lets him know her total displeasure. For his part Oliver Saville as Gideon has a boyish charm and a manner than lets Meg and us know he’s screwed up but wants to make amends.

Lorne Campbell has also infused the script with a political agenda. The men of the town only know how to build ships. They are proud of what they have produced, but they are informed by Freddy Newlands (Sean Kearns) the owner of the shipyard and Baroness Tynesdale (Annie Grace) a politician responsible for this industrial portfolio, that this yard can’t compete in the larger shipbuilding world. Their ships are too expensive and buyers can get ships elsewhere, more cheaply. That’s why the yard is being closed and the ship they have been working on is being scrapped. Still the workers balk.

Regardless of the cut characters, amalgamation of some of them and creation of others, what has remained almost in tact is Sting’s score and songs. I love the score and play the CD often, but sometimes with this new script it seems as if the songs have been dropped or sung by a character that seems out of place. While it’s sacrilegious to suggest some of Sting’s songs should be cut to tighten the show, that’s exactly what should have been done.

The cast is almost uniformly strong both in their singing and acting. And then there is Sting, the reason we are in the room in the first place. He plays Jackie White, the yard foreman. For all of his charisma as a rock star Sting is rather understated and unassuming as Jackie White. His forte is not acting and sometimes he tends to mumble.

The sound volume in the Princess of Wales Theatre doesn’t help. It’s so loud it distorts what anyone is singing and you often can’t make out the lyrics. We’re talking about the lyrics of Sting, one of the great song-writers of the day and we can’t make out his often elegant, poetic lyrics. What is wrong with this picture? Please, can’t something be done about the ear-splitting volume in that theatre?

For all of Lorne Campbell’s efforts to write a strong, cohesive script, the script for The Last Ship continues to be a major problem. He has introduced a pointed political aspect to the show but has not established a solution to the shipyard problem until almost at the end of the show. I went into intermission with no clear reason or possible solution that would bring me back to see how it all worked out.  He has created some new characters, with their own stories who have little purpose in progressing the narrative. Davey Harrison (Kevin Wathen) is an angry drunk who rages at everything. Why is he there?

A young woman (unnamed it seems) dressed in a slinky black sheath with spaghetti straps, tells us at the beginning of the show about the people of Wallsend, their hopes, dreams etc. Who is she? Is she a narrator/chorus? We don’t know so in what context are we to pay attention to her? She disappears for the whole show and comes back at the very end of the show to say that all over the world workers let go from failed businesses are rising up and taking over the businesses and making them work. Really? Where? Surely not in this show and certainly not in Oshawa (hard not to think of the GM mess in Oshawa while watching the show). Campbell just drops ideas into the plot and then doesn’t develop them. How can one ignore the fact that this proud shipyard can’t compete in the real world?

Lorne Campbell also directs this mammoth production, quickly moving characters all over 59 Productions’ incredible set. But too often he directs characters to perform facing the audience and not facing the characters also involved in the scene. That gives the production a clunky feel.

In a musical, the first number is vital in establishing the tone, feel and mood of the rest of the production. In The Last Ship the first song is a softly-sung, almost hymn-like number called “In the Morning.” My eye-brows are crinkling. I know this score (I play the CD a lot) and if anything Sting’s score and songs are often loud calls to action, rousing and angry. What is “In the Morning” doing there (it’s new to the score)—it stops the show almost before it begins. Then the mystery woman in the slinky black dress tells us about the people of Wallsend. But then Jackie White (Sting) comes forward and sings the rousing “We’ve Got Nowt Else” that tells us of the hard work these people have to do in their lives and how they do it with conviction, heart and soul. That is the song that should begin this musical. It says everything about it and the people. Should there be another version of The Last Ship this song should begin the show and the stuff before it should be cut.

Comment. The real star of this production is the set and all the attendant projections and animation created by 59 Productions. The ship rises as it’s produced; beams, steel, girders appear and disappear. The world of that yard is beautifully, powerfully produced. I so wish the rest of this production was as effective in telling the story. One can’t help but be impressed with Sting’s tenacity in wanting to tell the story so close to his heart. I just wish this production was better.

David Mirvish presents:

Closes: March 24, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mark Kennedy March 21, 2019 at 12:47 pm

I am no fan of musicals, especially if I feel that Broadway style songs come a’clunking into a story line. I enjoyed this one mostly, but agree with your calls for streamlining, and I THINK the performance I attended did begin with “We’ve got nowt else”. I had fewer complaints with the sound system, agree that the visuals were incredible. Time is not on my side, but I would see it again…. but I have a terrible bias. As long as Sting seems lively and capable, I, a half dozen years younger, can still pass as young (ish).


2 Kent James March 22, 2019 at 9:28 am

The piece Lynn’s referring to is a short choral number that bridges from the pre-show nonsense with the audience and Sting’s arrival on stage, and the real opening song.

And fun fact – yes, Sting is looking better than Roger Stone… they are the same age!


3 Harold Povilaitis March 21, 2019 at 9:26 pm

An excellent and perceptive review, Lynn … and I DO AGREE with your comments about the TOO LOUD sound system. I was bothered by this sound design issue when I first saw the show during its first week of the Toronto run … and I was then both surprised and disappointed that this is STILL a problem, when I saw the show A SECOND TIME this past Tuesday, the very same performance which YOU attended and reviewed !!!

The LYRICS of songs ARE important in a musical, and the sound design SHOULD be finessed, to make them more easily UNDERSTOOD … ESPECIALLY when a production is here for a multi-week run !!!