I have a terrible phobia of the underwater. To this day I have never sat through the entirety of James Cameron’s 1997 film… When the quivering and the nausea begin to sweep over me, which usually happens as soon as the ship pulls away from the dock, I have to switch off. Despite the numerous documentaries and adaptations that have been on to celebrate the centenary, and as much as the subject is fascinating, I cannot watch them. I thought that a musical of the story of Titanic would not give me those feelings; no water, no actual ship, none of the effects. Musicals use cheese and tunes to gloss the story with a warm fuzzy coating, and I therefore thought I was safe. However, as soon as the WWOS production of Titanic: The Musical began at the Churchill Theatre, the quality of the acting and the emotion behind the performance left me trembling just as much as any 3D or CGI version would have done, and I still cowered into my mother when the fathers were told they had to stay on board.
The cast encompassed those who had been real passengers on the ship; Captain Smith, the White Star line owner Mr Ismay and the ship designer, Mr Andrews, as well as first class travellers the Astors, Macy’s owner Mr Strauss and his wife, some third class people, as well as the staff on board; amongst others Mr Edges, the first class steward (who gave a great performance) and Mr Barrett the stoker. Already the performance had a realistic sincerity, but it also enabled a story with relationships between the characters providing sub-plots and a channel for light ironic humour, with second class passenger Mrs Bean consistently trying to ‘spy the millionaires’ which, if a little over-acted, was a good balance against the tragedy.
The whole show ran for 2 hours and 40 minutes, which was the time the ship took to sink. This was a good idea, but ensuring that the interval began on a ‘cliff-hanger’ meant that the iceberg didn’t strike until an hour and a half in. There were good attempts at building the suspense for the first half; the usual references to her not being able to sink, and the captain’s musings that this would be his final voyage, but these were almost lost in a first half that just seemed neverending. It was almost a relief when the berg complete with some blinding strobes and smoke finally struck. Due to the amount of time spent on the build up, the second half seemed a little rushed but in spite of this, the cast managed to sustain a great performance throughout.
Musical Titanic is at first glance a sceptic’s dream. The story is an unusual backdrop choice for a musical and this showed with the attempts at conveying humanity and sentiment through some rather clichéd songs; America as the nation of dreams and a rather awkward song about blame between Ismay, Andrews and Smith that took away a lot of the raw emotion and fellow feeling that would have communicated the story without the need for song, dance or show. But, it was a musical; and as a musical it was very successful. I still managed to leave the theatre in tears…