It's Grim Up North

By Ian Shuttleworth

If you didn’t even know that Sting had written a stage musical, that’s probably because when The Last Ship opened on Broadway in 2014, it didn’t entirely bomb, but it was a long way from being a firecracker. Not surprising, because if there’s one thing likely to be less of a draw for New York theatregoers than a musical about a shipbuilding community threatened with ruin under Thatcherism, it’s all that, delivered in Geordie accents, for Mr Sumner has based his fictional yard and town on his native Wallsend.

Now, with a rewritten and tightened script, it finally premieres where it always should have, on Tyneside, and... well, it’s not radically different, actually. It’s all done with skill and passion, but there are lots of things about it that, once you notice them, you can’t stop noticing. He’s a fine songwriter, obviously. These numbers are not stage-musical sludge, nor rock trying to be theatrical. Many of them sound pleasingly Celtic, and once or twice there’s a definite nip of Kurt Weill. But once you spot the characteristically Stingy vocal lines, they hound you, particularly in the case of Richard Fleeshman as Gideon.

The lyrics, unlike the music, can try too hard. In general, they aim higher and miss more often in the romantic strand of the plot – Gideon returns home 17 years after running away to sea to find that his teenage beloved Meg wants nothing to do with him and hasn’t even told their daughter of his identity. There’s more honesty and directness to the political aspect: the shipyard, the only industry in town, is about to be closed until the workers resolve to occupy the yard and finish their final commission. But even here, Sting can overreach himself: the first time the workers sang defiantly, ‘We’ll conjure up a ship where there used to be a hole,’ I nearly laughed out loud.

Lorne Campbell directs skilfully (as well as handling the script rewrites), with a cast including Joe McGann as the yard’s foreman (replacing Jimmy Nail – ‘Nail pulled from Last Ship’ ran one headline a few weeks ago), Frances McNamee as Meg and Katie Moore as rebellious daughter Ellie. But when the show dodges the problem of how to handle its ending by simply not having one, it becomes obvious that basically, the whole tale is a threadbare illusion. Sting’s trying to sound a powerful political message on the stage, in the style of his fellow Geordie Lee Hall, but all this really boils down to is that American-flavoured cliché that strong belief and follow-through will surely take you places. It ends up almost mocking what it sets out to celebrate.

Runs until 7 April at Northern Stage, Newcastle upon Tyne: 0191-230 5151, www.northernstage., then touring until 7 July