At a macro level, a show called Titanic is a bit of a reviewer’s dream – what spoilers could there possibly be? If it ends in anything other than the loss of 1,517 lives, then the show is obviously telling a different story to the one its title suggests. Here’s a spoiler after all, then: it’s not exactly a finish that leaves the audience with a spring in their step and smiles on their faces. This would be unusual for me these days, because of the number of invitations I receive to various productions (my apologies if I sound like a right smug git), but I only ever saw this production in the first place because other theatregoers urged me to go to Southwark Playhouse and check out this phenomenal show.
I would have booked a second time if the remaining performances in the Southwark run hadn’t sold out already. So, it was almost three years before I saw it again, at press night at Charing Cross Theatre. There was an opportunity to see a ‘midnight matinee’ at the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton on Saturday 14 April 2018, to mark the 106th anniversary of the actual sinking, but as I don’t trust South Western Railway to get me to Surbiton let alone Southampton, I plumped for a performance of this touring production in Sheffield instead.
As well as having the same director (Thom Sutherland), set and costume designer (David Woodhead), musical director (Mark Aspinall), and so on, the show has even managed to retain some of the cast from the 2013 Southwark Playhouse run. Dudley Rogers and Judith Street reprise Isidor and Ida Straus, and their rendering of ‘Still’ in the second half is, well, still glorious. Simon Green reprises his J Bruce Ismay, chairman and managing director of the White Star Line. Captain Edward Smith is once more played by Philip Rham, and Victoria Serra reprises her Kate McGowan, one of three Kates, all Irish, all off to pursue the American Dream and all in third-class accommodation. From the 2016 Charing Cross Theatre cast, Alistair Barron, who played Charles Lightoller, reprises that role. Claire Machin reprises the well-informed motormouth Alice Beane, and Niall Sheehy returns to the show, reprising the role of Frederick Barrett, a stoker.
What this touring version demonstrates best is how well the set works well in a proscenium arch theatre like the Lyceum in Sheffield. It never did attempt to replicate approximately (let alone exactly) how the first-class dining experience would have been like in terms of décor and ambience – even so, this is a show that wouldn’t be out of place in the West End. This discerning Saturday audience rose to its feet at the curtain call for a reason – not because anybody encouraged a standing ovation, however subtly or unsubtly, but because this was a genuinely justified response to the production, which could evidently have yet another run as a West End show, even if only for a limited run.
I still chuckled at the “dit-dit-dah-dit, dah-dit”-ing of Harold Bride (Oliver Marshall), singing Morse code (don’t ask). But what I hadn’t picked up on previously was how quickly some of the costume changes must be: certain members of the cast play Character X in first class and Character Y in third class, so every time the production switches between one and the other, some of the same faces are there, but dressed markedly differently.
Class differences are emphasised with relative simplicity. An example: when the Captain’s order for all passengers to put lifejackets on is carried out, the first-class passengers are given individual assistance to put them on, the second-class have theirs personally given to them but must work out how to wear them, while the third-class have their lifejackets thrown in their general direction, such that they must retrieve them from the floor, disentangle them, and distribute them amongst themselves.
It remains a quirky choice for a musical, though the soaring melodies combine with sublime performances from a strong cast to provide an outstanding and highly emotionally charged experience. As the Duke of Sussex apparently said immediately after the sermon by Bishop Michael Curry at the royal wedding recently, “Wow.”
If my name was Tina Turner, would I have turned up to opening night of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical? She has, of course, endorsed the show, and it’s her words of welcome that greet theatre patrons as they open the programme (sorry, ‘souvenir brochure’), expressing her best wishes and hopes that we enjoy the show. She’s been a part of the show’s development from workshop stage, but it’s still a distinctly uncomfortable watch, especially in the first half, as Tina (played by Adrienne Warren) suffers at the hands of her first husband Ike (an extraordinarily convincing Kobna Holdbrook Smith).
The amount of physical and psychological abuse meted out on stage would be seen as mere sensationalism – unnecessary, even – had it not been representative of an actual marriage that was never going to last. Indeed, it is astonishing that Tina held out as long as she did. Perhaps sticking it out is what people did back then – just as getting married in the first place is what people did back then. Warren, like Andrew Polec over at Bat Out of Hell The Musical, was imported from the United States: here, one wonders how much acting is required, if any, when a London music producer starts talking to her using British English idioms, and she wants a translation.
With Ike out of the way after the interval (well, sort of), things get worse before they get better, as Tina is left to claw her way back into the music business having taken the decision to go solo – Ike had dictatorial control over the business affairs of his and Tina’s careers, so Tina had to reinvent herself, no longer being able to use the songs from ‘The Ike and Tina Turner Revue’ that put her name on the map in the first place. Triumph over adversity eventually happens, though, and the show ends quite gloriously in January 1988, when a stadium crowd in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, has gathered to see her perform.
What is striking is how much Adrienne Warren really does sound like Tina Turner, with the sort of vocal that requires some significant vocal gymnastics. But this is not merely an extremely accurate impersonation, even as the movements and mannerisms scream TINA TURNER. There’s something about Warren’s sheer commitment to the role that one would be forgiven for momentarily thinking it really is Turner up there on the Aldwych Theatre stage. So convincing is the title character’s performance that one can’t but help but root for her.
Some of the songs help to push the narrative forward, whilst others serve the purpose of underlining a certain atmosphere, or otherwise creating one. If the sound is quite muffled at times, it finally nails it in an enthusiastic encore, which sees Warren bounce around with the sort of seemingly tireless energy not seen in the West End since Charlie Stemp led the Chichester Festival Theatre transfer of Half A Sixpence. Most of the orchestra is repositioned so as to form an on-stage band, and Turner’s fans in the audience, who already know all the words, having (mostly) kept a respectful silence throughout, seize the moment and go for it.
Simply the best? Well, I doubt Tina Turner’s fanbase will be disappointed. Yes, I’d recommend it.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.