'Titanic' at the Charing Cross Theatre - A Review

In 1999, I was apparently a little uncool. Even though it had come out to blockbuster acclaim two years before, I still hadn’t seen the biggest movie of the decade, James Cameron’s ‘Titanic’, starring Huge Star Leonardo DiCaprio and little-known nobody (to me) Kate Winslet. I presume I had somehow heard that it was an amazing film, because all I wanted for my tenth birthday was to see that film – which is rated 12, by the way, so my parents were only trying to be responsible by withholding it. Luckily for me, they decided to stop being responsible, and on my birthday, I received a VHS of the film (because I am SO OLD). I had a sleepover birthday party that year, and at 10pm we put the video on. For three hours, I was transfixed, transported by this story of a cute boy, a pretty (and yet brave!) girl, a big boat (sorry, ship) and their impending, inevitable doom.

Ever since that night, ‘Titanic’ has been my all-time absolute favourite film, without question. I long ago lost count of the number of times I’ve seen it. My most recent viewing was a year ago, on the day James Horner, the composer of the soundtrack, tragically died in a plane crash – a small personal memorial to the man whose music was such a big part of my life for so long. As a scared little teen, I used to run through the whole script in my head when I had nobody real to talk to. Nothing else comes close, and nothing ever will – but this is not about the film ‘Titanic’. This is about the musical, which also first came out in 1997, on Broadway, and which I had the pleasure of seeing at the Charing Cross Theatre on Thursday 21st July 2016.

The above dawdle down Memory Lane was to lend this evening some context; the story of the RMS Titanic’s maiden voyage is not unknown to me. When I saw that this musical was being staged in London, I jumped at the chance to see this story told in a new medium. This production was actually first staged at the Southwark Playhouse in 2013 but it passed me by at that time, so I’m very glad it has come back for another run.

This was my first visit to the Charing Cross Theatre, which has a capacity of just 265. It has a charming underground entrance in The Arches very close to the station. We had stalls seats, and walking into the auditorium, we were greeted by nautical-themed balconies along the sides, which were painted to give the impression of the deck of a ship (I assume – if that’s the theatre’s normal look, it’s mightily convenient).

One thing to add at this juncture is that we saw this production on a very, very warm night in July. A heatwave July. It was absolutely boiling in the theatre, and the actors were wearing period costumes for a frigid night on the ice fields of the Atlantic for much of the piece. They were absolute heroes, not giving the slightest indication of what they must have been going through under those lights. I know what I was going through merely sitting there in a cotton dress all night. I’ll say no more about that, but just know – it was hot in there.

David Woodhead’s set was a thing of beauty. The backdrop looked like it was a small close-up of the side of the ship, all dark iron and rounded rivets. The majority of the play is set on board the ship, and therefore having the actors in front of that – as if they are somehow outside it – perhaps doesn’t directly ‘make sense’, but in terms of offering a sense of place this design was highly successful. It is impossible to forget that despite the grandiose dinner settings and occasional dancing, the characters are on an iron vessel made of rivets and hard graft.

There were also several moveable staircases (just like in the current London production of ‘In The Heights’, which also made its debut at the Southwark Playhouse, in 2014) which were used effectively to transform the small stage into various different parts of the ship and harbour – most poignantly when directed straight at the audience to play the role of the Crow’s Nest, from where Rob Houchen’s lookout, Fleet, shouts the immortal words, “iceberg, right ahead!” just before the lights go down for the interval.

In terms of plot, this musical is more ‘Love Actually’ than ‘Titanic’, telling the stories of several couples and groups across all the different sections of the ship, from stokers in the boiler room to business magnates in the first class lounge. All named characters are based on real named passengers on the Titanic (which is not the case in the film version). This is a nice touch, which, along with the banner showing the names of all those who lost their lives in the sinking, lowered during the second act, gives the play much more emotional weight than I was expecting.

The entire cast in this production was very strong, with each member (as far as I could tell) playing at least two roles, to give a sense of the thousands of different people aboard the ship. Particular mention should go to Victoria Serra as an aspirational pregnant Irishwoman who starts off the wonderfully fun song ‘Lady’s Maid’, a bittersweet ode to the ill-fated ambitions of the wide-eyed Third Class passengers; to the aforementioned Rob Houchen as Fleet the Lookout, who was the best thing in ‘Les Misérables’ last year and was equally scene-stealing here; to Matthew Crowe as Bride, the Marconi operator with deep professional pride and a lovely song about the connections made across the world with the modern technology of telegraphy; and to the effervescent Luke George in the dual roles of the bellboy and Wallace Hartley, the Bandmaster who entertained the passengers as the ship went down.

This is classic storytelling done in earnest and the score has many standout dramatic moments, including the uplifting swell of the ‘Godspeed Titanic’ theme, repeated throughout (which I keep finding myself humming weeks later, and which reminded me of the theme tune to ‘The West Wing’!), Niall Sheehy’s very strong solo ‘Barrett’s Song’ which features a dance routine by rugged stokers with shovels, and my personal favourite, ‘The Blame’, in which the ship’s owner, designer and captain each try to point the blame at each other, while the ship continues to sink. These were characters I knew well from the film, so it was particularly interesting to see their story told in a new and fresh way.

The staging of the sinking used the whole space of the theatre in an interesting and unusual way, and the fact that many in the audience would be familiar with the scenes allowed the use of visual cues as a shorthand to transport us to that night. We know what the lifeboats looked like, and how they lowered them, so we don’t need to actually see it happen. The moments when characters we have got to know over the course of the show are separated, or meet their final fate together, were unbelievably moving, especially during the voiceover telling us about the sheer numbers of different types of passengers and workers killed.

This is by no means a fun musical, but I came away from the theatre feeling uplifted and optimistic, humming the songs. A terrible thing happened in the north Atlantic over one hundred years ago, but as long as we as humans keep trying to make sense of terrible things through storytelling, music and art, we’ll never go too far wrong. This is a wonderful, wonderful show.