When you leave the Liverpool Playhouse and turn left, and walk down Church Street, onto Lord Street, and you keep walking down that road as it turns into James Street, pretty quickly you’ll end up on the waterfront. In your peripheral vision will be the King’s Dock, the Albert Dock, the new Museum and the ferry terminal on your side of the river, and as the coast bends round to your right you could walk to find the Canada dock or the Gladstone Dock and the Princes dock. Looking across the Mersey you can see Birkenhead and the Cammel Laird shipbuilding company in front of you, and New Brighton stretching away to your right. Behind you are the Three Graces; The Liver Building, The Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool Building.
What I’m getting at, is that the second you leave The Last Ship, you can choose to see what happened after its end. Those docks are now home to hotels, and museums, Tate bloody Liverpool, bars, restaurants; businesses about as far from heavy industry as it’s possible to get in the capitalist world.
The shipbuilding company on the other side of the Mersey is currently building the RRS Sir David Attenborough in its hall, but that’s not to imply the business of shipbuilding has continued uninterrupted since time immemorial. It’s been rough for everyone involved, with long stretches of uncertainty since the 1970s. The fact they still build ships there is something of a miracle.
Why the hell is a sweeping introduction to the geography of Liverpool’s docklands relevant to a blog post about a musical written by Sting, I hear you complain. Quite a fucking lot, as it turns out.
The Last Ship is about a man called Gideon, who left his hometown 17 years previously and is only now returning, as the shipyard that keeps the town’s men employed is being closed by the government. As Gideon comes to terms with this new landscape, and the mess he left behind, the town rallies behind the last ship under construction, determining to finish the job. Sounds tidy, right? WRONG.
There’s a lot going on in The Last Ship. There’s the Gideon story, and there’s the Meg – the girl he left behind, now with something of a business empire – story, there’s the story of Ellen, their daughter, and then there’s the story of Peggy and Jackie White, an older married couple. And all the ship yard stuff. And it’s a musical which means every couple of minutes they start singing. THERE’S A LOT GOING ON AND IT’S MESSY.
The fact that The Last Ship is, at its heart, the story of a community, massively helps to cohere all of that. Most of the cast are on stage most of the time, the set doesn’t change (a sort of iron framework onto which smoky images are projected) and the score constantly relies on multiple voices. The very performing of The Last Ship is an act of solidarity and community, an idea that reverberates continuously throughout. Its power comes from the lack of apology that comes with this; it wears its politics on its sleeves.
Shipbuilding isn’t a job, it’s way beyond that. It’s life. When you close a shipyard – or a mine, for that matter – you’re not making someone redundant, you are stripping them of everything they have ever known and therefore everything they associate with their self-worth. When you do that without providing an alternative, you destroy a community. It’s as simple as that. There’s something in The Last Ship that makes it seem utterly modern; it’s set in the 1980s, I guess, but it never feels overt. It could be happening yesterday, or tomorrow.
Unusually, for a piece with these politics, it’s optimistic – not mournful. One of the saddest images on any stage of the twenty-first century was the miners sinking into the stage at the end of Billy Elliot – none of that here. As the music swells and the ship is launched, it feels triumphant, it feels utterly possible. The fact that it’s accompanied by an epilogue, reminding us of others taking their lives into the own hands; the kids at Parkland, the workers at the Brukman factory in Buenos Aires, every time someone stands up for the NHS – it feels like the most hopeful thing you could hear at a time when every meaningful but of infrastructure seems to be under threat, if not well on its way to collapsing.
The show accelerates in its second act. It has the reverse problem to most musicals; it has a first act problem, not a second act problem. With so much set-up to do to allow for the emotional payoff, it just lacks momentum in the same way as the second. Once they’ve resolved to continue building the ship anyway, the show becomes unstoppable. It hurtles down the slipway into the sea and you’re pulled along with it.
Much of that pull is down to the music. By Sting. STING.
It’s genuinely beautiful music, probably one of the strongest scores in musical theatre of the last 20 years. Blending folk and drinking-song and rock and hymn, it swells and soars on the voices of the cast. Melodically it’s gorgeously simple, but the surprise is in the lyrics, and the density of them. This is my favourite bit from the end of the title song:
“Oh the roar of the chains and the cracking of timbers,
The noise at the end of the world in your ears,
As a mountain of steel makes its way to the sea,
And the last ship sails.
And whatever you’ve promised, whatever you’ve done,
And whatever the station in life you’ve become,
In the name of the Father, in the name of the Son,
And whatever the weave of this life that you’ve spun,
On the Earth or in Heaven, or under the Sun.
When the last ship sails.”
Typing that out, it’s lost a lot of its character. Obviously. You have to imagine the vowels, stretched out and slackened, and the Ts all flattened out, giving those last lines their incessant rhythm. One of the gorgeous things about the lyrics is the way they marry dialect to the melody – “I cannae be missing, the lads’ll expect me,” “We’ve got nowt, we’ve got nowt else,” – the characters sing exactly how they’d talk.
And because the characters sing exactly how they’d talk, the lyrics have such a fascinating referential character. The sheer bloody amount of religious allusion is striking, but the way that moves in parallel with concrete life is more so. I couldn’t decide whether Father and Son should be capitalised in those lyrics. If they are, the religious stuff is fairly obvious, and The Last Ship becomes a prayer. If they’re not, then it’s a dedication. It’s a pledge to the past and the future, in a way that religion doesn’t seem to allow for – at least in my experience. And the absolutism in the egalitarian ideals, the idea that the christening of the ship is also the baptism of those aboard it. Just bloody listen to the album – the Sting one, at least until we have a British cast album (please, please, please.)
And I love that image of “the noise at the end of the world in your ears.” The idea of that last ship being the end of the world, I’m not sure why I find that so moving.
The show is touring to theatres of various sizes, from the 700-odd seats at Northern stage and the Playhouse, to the bloody cavernous Lyric Theatre at the Lowry, that seats 1700. It’s a score that can expand and contract in space; it will no doubt feel more operatic and cathedral-like on that stage in Salford, and feels very intimate and chapel-like in an old playhouse. They’ll also probably be able to fit more set on the stage at the Lowry, to be honest.
And thank GOD for casting actors in musicals. Joe McGann and Charlie Hardwick are giving brilliant performances in this show, but it’s not because they can sing prettily. They’re both good singers, don’t get me wrong, but it’s the steel underneath, and the ferocity you sense in them that makes them exciting to watch. Hardwick in particular, with her delicate head voice that seems to stretch for the top notes, can switch instantly into sheer bloody determination. She has a speech in front of the shipyard in the second act – pretty much the moment I decided I loved this show – that is delivered with such a conviction that it would render any opposition impotent. It’s defiant and aggressive, eplicitly referencing the Battle of Orgreave (you could feel the Scouse audience breathing in,) BBC bias, police brutality… the works. It’s seared onto my brain.
McGann – and I mean this is the nicest possible way – looks like he’s spent his life at work. There is a solidity to his physical presence that grants him an immediate authority, you know immediately why the men trust him, why he is the spokesman as well as the foreman, and why his wife will go along with just about anything he suggests. Wait, no. Not fair. His wife believes in ‘it’ as strongly as he does, but while her husband is physically building the ships, she has to deal with the physical fallout, nursing their injuries. She too, has worked too hard to see the shipyard dismissed in the name of so-called economic progression. They’re a formidable pair.
There’s a reason they get the last bows, put it that way.
The rather gorgeous artwork for The Last Ship is actually a real stained-glass window, it turns out, in St Mary’s Cathedral in Newcastle. Religion and work are utterly entwined. Religion and life are utterly entwined.
I was thinking about where The Last Ship is touring to; nowhere in England further South than Birmingham. Mostly coastal towns and cities, ones with shipbuilding heritage or docklands. An audience that looks like the people in the show. It’s only the second time I’ve ever seen the Liverpool Playhouse totally packed out. Maybe that’s what happens when the top price of a ticket is 32 quid.
I wondered how that epilogue, which essentially encourages the audience to wrench back the means of production, would play south of Watford. I don’t know. My instinct was ‘badly,’ but I’m not so sure. Though you can’t leave a theatre on Shaftesbury avenue and be in the heart of the city’s heavy industry in 10 minutes. There’s an imaginative leap required.
If you’re lucky to be North enough (or Welsh, or Irish, or Scottish,) to be able to see The Last Ship, do. And take your family.
Photo by Pamela Raith.