The Last Ship

Sting Brings his Last Ship to the Stage   

The British seem to love turning their stories about hard-luck small towns caught in economic downturns into musicals.  Billy Elliott is a musical of a boy from a coal mining town, when Margaret Thatcher shuts down all the mines – but Billy perseveres and becomes a ballet dancer.  In Kinky Boots a shoe factory, which makes only sensible brogues, is saved from bankruptcy and closure when the new young owner switches to manufacturing fancy high boots for drag queens.  Both are inspiring stories of love and acceptance with happy endings.

Sting (famous lead singer of the rock band Police) decided to jump on the laid-off workforce band wagon and write a musical about the closure of shipyards in northern England.  Unfortunately, The Last Ship won’t see the success of Billy Elliott or Kinky Boots because it completely lacks that feel-good ending.   

This musical was problematic when it opened on Broadway in 2014 and closed after a short run.  There are two writers listed, so I assume it was rewritten after its short stay on Broadway, but alas, the plot is still too slow moving and very contrived.  It inches along through the first act, and no decision about their predicament is reached until the second act is nearly over.  Then it is too late for any redemption or clear resolution.

The show opens with a young couple in love.  But he decides not to work in the shipyard, and leaves town to join the Navy.  The shipbuilders learn that there is no buyer for the nearly-completed ship. There is conflict among the characters as to how this should be handled.  Union members take on the owner who is less than honest with them, and a strike is called.  Spoiler alert: stop here if you don’t want to know the ending. The owner tells them to tear apart the ship they have just built, so that the parts can be sold off.  Of course, the builders who take pride in their work don’t want to do that.  So they go back to their jobs, finish the ship and launch it.  The sailor comes home, appoints himself captain, and steers it out of the shipyard.  But the audience has no idea how far they can go and what will come of it anyway.

Too many things just don’t ring true.  The young couple don’t see each other for 17 years.  He doesn’t call or contact her and so has no idea he has fathered a daughter, now a rebellious teenager.  Hmmm, wouldn’t you think he’d run across someone from his home town who might have mentioned it?  And he expected his girlfriend to be waiting for him on his return, even though he hadn’t called or sent a postcard in 17 years. She is angry at first, but quickly falls back in love with him.  Nope, that’s just too far-fetched.

Then there’s the scene where Jackie White (Sting) dies. He succumbs to cancer while visiting the shipyard, which seems sudden.  So his wife says a ship’s carpenter should make his coffin.  Bingo, suddenly there’s a coffin.

Some of Sting’s songs are lovely ballads, but this musical lacks a rousing, showstopping 11:00 o’clock number.  The cast is talented and there are some lovely voices, but Sting’s raspy voice is not what we are used to on the musical theatre stage, and at times it seems jarring.  They speak with the northern England Geordie accent, so until you are used to it, it can be difficult to understand.

There was support for Sting when he recently visited Oshawa to talk to workers at the soon-to-be closed GM plant.  Am I a little too jaded?  Was Sting’s visit to Oshawa a generous gesture of solidarity with the autoworkers, or was it a publicity stunt to draw people to his musical?

I wondered if The Last Ship might be popular with Sting fans who are excited to see him live on stage.  The website states that he will be performing in all shows.  But I sat next to a threesome of Sting/Police fans.  Before the show began, they seemed to think they were attending a Sting concert.  They left at intermission and did not return.

I suspect that The Last Ship will be Sting’s last musical.

The Last Ship continues with eight shows a week at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. W., Toronto, Ontario until March 24.  Call TicketKing 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333 or visit www.mirvish.com for tickets.

Photo: Sting with the cast.  Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

The Last Ship
Music and lyrics by Sting
New Book by Lorne Campbell
Original Book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey
Directed by Lorne Campbell
Performed by Sting et al
The Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto
February 9 to March 24, 2019
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

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