The Last Ship
“A place and its people, a people in their place. That place you came from. The place where it happened… or didn’t. A place of dinner times and tea times, hooters, bells and buzzers, your alarm clock and your lullaby. The place you’re from. A place of quietly desperately dreaming or loudly drunkenly screaming. A place of fitting in and fighting, of settling down and settling for, of getting on or getting out… The place where it happened or could’ve… Or still might. The slipway is yours.” Ellen Dawson, The Last Ship by Lorne Campbell.
From February 9th to March 24th, Sting’s The Last Ship docked in Toronto, finding a harbour in The Princess of Wales Theatre. The musical has a score and lyrics penned by international sensation Sting, who took to the stage in the role of Jackie White for every performance. The original book written by John Logan and Brian Yorkey was rewritten in 2018 by Lorne Campbell, who also leads the incredible company as the director.
Set in the shipbuilding community of Wallsend in Tyne and Wear, UK, The Last Ship tells the story of a community that rallies together as their livelihood is threatened when the shipyard is at risk of being shut down. Having left town seventeen years ago to avoid being locked into a life in the shipyard, Gideon Fletcher returns to lay his past to rest. Once home, he encounters more ghosts than expected as family and community tensions are on the rise. While the strike rages on, Gideon is once again faced with a decision between family and duty, and a life outside Wallsend.
The Last Ship is a love letter to a hometown, any hometown, and that makes it universal. The book itself is layered, nuanced, and deeply human. Weaving two plot lines together, the show addresses family, duty, love, community, justice, and the coming of age desire to leave behind the place that raised you. The music sets the scene, transporting you to another place. Sting’s music has always been moving, with lyrics that paint beautiful pictures, but paired with Tony-nominee Rob Mathes’ orchestrations, the score for the show takes flight. The original pieces contain choral arrangements that send a chill through the theatre, and the hits such as When We Dance have been transformed to soar onstage as theatrical ballads. The onstage band integrates the music as a part of the story being told and reflects the community and setting of the overall piece.
Alongside the onstage band, the show is staged with many breaches of the fourth wall to invite the audience into the story. At the top of each act, the company enters early, interacting with each other and the audience. Those watching the show are welcomed to the yard; experiencing morning routines, drinking with the lassies, and are addressed as members of the community in rousing speeches by the foreman and union leaders.
The show is a strong ensemble piece lead by Sting, who steps into the role of Jackie White, the shipyard’s gruff but loveable foreman. Naturally, Sting as a headliner was huge for ticket sales, but many theatregoers wondered how the rockstar, best known for fronting The Police and successful solo career, would fare alongside those known for musical theatre. Sting’s performance of Jackie White was strong, honest, and incredible. Vocally, he was comfortable in these songs, adapting his vocal technique to those best suited for musical theatre. While maintaining his natural rasp, he had an open sound with clear diction that gave him a natural theatre sound. Sting is a storyteller, and he navigates his role well. His natural presence brings gravitas and authority to the foreman, and even in scenes where he was not the main focus, he listened well, sharing the stage with his co-stars.
By his side was Jackie Morrison as Peggy White, Jackie’s wife and one of the leaders of the community. Morrison holds her own beside Sting and gives a tour de force performance. Her vocals are stunning, but her stage presence is unmatched. In the new script, Peggy White is given a larger role and is integral to the movement of the shipyard strike. While Jackie is the heart of the community, Peggy is the backbone. In a pivotal moment of the script, she stands, declaring that “There’s no time for weeping, there’s women’s work to be done”. The women of Wallsend hold their own in supporting their community, and during the Women’s Reprise of We’ve Got Nowt Else, the audience was visibly moved.
Also worth noting is the electric chemistry between Oliver Savile and Frances McNamee, who portray Gideon Fletcher and Meg Dawson. The pair match each other step for step as reunited lovers, and the passion they pour out onstage becomes a tennis match. These two are wonderfully cast opposite each other and their rendition of When We Dance is not to be missed. The company of The Last Ship gave honest and entertaining performances, both paying tribute to those affected by deindustrialization in the 1980s and to those still facing injustice in the workplace. It also acknowledges the dreams and inner conflict of any kid who has ever wanted more than their hometown had to offer.
Behind the company was a gorgeous, two-tiered set. While the set did not change throughout both acts, it was transformed between bar, slipway, ship, docks, a home, and more through staging and brilliant visual effects. This production is a prime example of use of space, as each part of the stage was utilized, highlighted, and celebrated. Use of the apron, layering, and depth turned the enormous Princess of Wales Theatre into an intimate venue, inviting audience members into the shipyard.
The show was visually stunning due to projections and genius use of the scrim. At times, projected backdrops can become a distraction, but this was not the case at The Last Ship. Projections of sea, sky, and the shipyard introduced theatregoers to the cold beauty of this small town. There is no shortage of attention to detail in this production, and the projections are no different. In many scenes, there is a sign to the entrance of the shipyard. As time passes and weather changes, so does this sign; becoming worn, casting different shadows, and being fixed up. This specific piece of the set is just one example of the details within The Last Ship.
The scrim was used cleverly; as a barrier between past and future, living and deceased, inside and outside. Perhaps one of the most beautiful moments of the show happens with the actors behind the scrim, with projections of a church at the end of Act One. There is no way to describe the breathtaking visual effects of this production but they serve the story being told while wowing audiences.
The Last Ship is an incredible story which was told in an impactful way. Audiences laughed and cried as the show progressed, completely on board with the community onstage. This musical is universal and timeless; a message of hope, resilience, and what we are capable of when we band together. A powerful, inspiring, and thought-provoking story, it was presented by the company with care and detail in each moment.
Although The Last Ship has set sail from Toronto, here’s wishing the show ‘fair winds and following seas’ to whichever harbour it finds next.