In late 1997, when millions of cinema-goers flocked to see Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio immortalise the maiden voyage of RMS Titanic, they were not the first that year to witness a dramatic treatment of those fateful few days in history. Six months earlier, a musical version of the events opened on Broadway, winning five Tony Awards. And though there is no Jack and Rose in the musical, there are certainly enough tragic lovers to give James Cameron a run for his money.
The musical presents a neat cross-section of the Titanic’s society. There are Nottinghamshire miners turned engine room stokers; Irish girls in third class who dream of becoming ladies’ maids in America; an unwed couple, disowned by their families, hoping to find respectability in a freer society; and an aspiring second class keen to rub shoulders with the US millionaires in first. Each floor of the mighty steamer contains passengers dreaming of a better life in the New World. Yet, once these characters have been established, their stories don’t develop much: they are types who can be ticked off rather than people who might surprise us.
It’s a challenge, dramatising a famous episode in history. We all know that in 1912 the Titanic hit an iceberg because speed was prized over safety, and that those in charge wanted to make the crossing in record time. Perhaps the original Broadway audiences were not as familiar with these facts as we are now, after Cameron’s Titanic and the media focus of the centenary last year. But we can’t un-know all this, and the production feels laden with obvious dramatic irony.
Maury Yeston’s musical numbers are delivered well by a mostly strong cast. James Hume is excellent as Etches the butler, only betraying his terror as the ship goes down when no one else is looking. It’s thrilling being so close to the singers in this intimate space – quite different from the West End. Yet the score often feels syrupy and the lyrics humourless when compared with, say, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s recent hit musical Matilda.
The most moving moment is a simple recitation of the facts, unaccompanied by music. It’s still devastating to know that though there were 450 empty spaces on the lifeboats, only 13 passengers were pulled out of the freezing water – and hundreds drowned in their third class compartments, where they were locked below.
To August 31, southwarkplayhouse.co.uk