There was, from what I understand, a version of this show some five years ago, but it didn’t do all that well. So it has been retooled and now… Well, in a way, the play itself lends the best metaphor: a ship was built, but then needed to be broken down and rebuilt. Or something.
The Last Ship isn’t a show I would have sought out; it just happened to be part of my seasonal subscription to the local theatre. Anyway, I like Sting, and I know a little about his background and therefore knew there had to be a pretty personal connection between him and the content of this show. He wasn’t as involved in the first version, only having been called in later in the run in an attempt to save the show. When it closed to be reworked, Sting remained the headliner in the hopes the familiar name would draw audiences.
Still, here is all I knew going in:
These aren’t, perhaps, the greatest selling points? I mean, if one thinks about the fact that the first version of the show didn’t even have Point 1… Who goes to see musicals about building ships? The Venn diagram of people who have an interest in manual labor crises from the 1980s, and/or have an interest in shipbuilding in particular, and have money to toss at musical theatre has got to be a pretty thin slice, doesn’t it? Adding Sting and his music as a new circle, well… I suppose there are more people interested in him and his work than the other things, but…
Okay, so the backdrop of this musical is Wallsend, 1986. The shipyard there is being closed down. The shipbuilders are told that a fraction of them will be hired at lesser wages to break apart the ship—the last ship—that was nearly finished but is now to be sold for scrap. Over this is laid the story of Gideon, son of a shipbuilder, who ran away from Wallsend 17 years before in hopes of avoiding the shipbuilding life. He became a sailor instead. I guess that’s better? But he left behind Meg, and as he returns to Wallsend, he discovers Meg has a 17-year-old daughter. Meg has become a fiercely independent single mum and pub owner, and she’s not interested in going back to being vulnerable. Another, smaller story is that of foreman Jackie White (Sting), trying to navigate his workers and their union through the rocky shoals of the industrial crises. Jackie has lung cancer, too, so that’s… a thing.
Here’s the problem, at least with this new version of the show (I wish I’d seen the previous; reviews make it sound way more entertaining): I was never really all that invested in any of the characters or situations. They are all pretty rote and lack much depth. The stories themselves are insanely simplistic; there is hardly any real tension and opportunities to highlight conflict are mishandled. If anything, I found the inflection of the show monotonous. The music wasn’t particularly catchy; I didn’t feel the desire to download the cast album and listen to any of it again, which to me is the sign of a good musical. Some of Sting’s known songs have been tweaked and used (gah, the guy two seats over kept leaning over and telling his date, “This is one of his songs,” every time something familiar got worked in). Much of the stagecraft is reliant on screens, which doesn’t make for particularly interesting visuals, the final scene notwithstanding.
There are a number of interesting characters whose potential are squandered. One guy named Davy doesn’t want to strike, wants nothing to do with the big plan to win back the shipyard, etc. I waited for him to betray the others or, really, something, anything. But he just comes crawling back, no hard feelings. A carpenter named Adrian quotes from literature, and that was fun. The one bit of humor in the show that worked for me was when it’s pointed out that no one ever understands him. The show could definitely have used more moments of levity like that one to give it some bounce. Sadly, as it sits (like a hulk in dry dock), it’s a bit of a flatline. No tide.
Sting, too, didn’t seem all that into it. Maybe he was tired, maybe his arm hurt (it was in a sling for some reason), but he gave the impression of not particularly wanting to be there. On the other hand, many of the actors were clearly giving it their all, and they had impressive voices and some also were skilled dancers. Which is to say, The Last Ship wasn’t all bad. It just… could clearly have been better? With a more interesting story, more depth of character… Which, after the fact, I went to read more about the history of the show and discovered that it probably did have those things in the original version. Based only on what I read, I think this retooling probably did the show a disservice. Meant to make The Last Ship more, what? Comprehensible? It actually lobotomized it. (Again, I can’t say for sure, not having seen the original production, but…)
It’s nothing I need to see again. Nothing I need to hear again, either. It will probably stick with me, but not for the reasons shows want to be remembered. Only because I’ll likely continue to try to figure out why it didn’t work, what went wrong. I’ll want to pick at it, deconstruct it. That’s my media studies degree at work, maybe, but with really good shows, that desire almost never surfaces. We only autopsy when we think there’s been foul play.