Review - The Last Ship at Northampton's Royal & Derngate

Joe McGann in The Last Ship
Joe McGann in The Last Ship

A tale inspired by Sting's own childhood growing up in Tyneside, it is easy to see how his musical, The Last Ship, was a labour of love for the singer.

He may not appear in the show, which is running this week at Northampton's Royal & Derngate, but his voice and talent resonate throughout this production, packed with powerful choral pieces.

Richard Fleeshman in The Last Ship

Richard Fleeshman in The Last Ship

The musical feels quite long for a stage show (approximately two and a half hours), but it probably needs to be. The task of putting together this epic, passionate, political, layered and yet personal production must have been mammoth.

From the very beginning, it is clear that the set itself (by Olivier-nominated 59 Productions) will be a huge star in the drama. Shipyard scaffolding stretches across the stage, but the settings are changed regularly from domestic to industrial and from street scenes to seascapes with the use of screens and projected images. These are stunning and extraordinarily effective.

The constantly altering set helps depict the intricacies of an involved plot, which focuses on the wider picture of a northern shipbuilding industry sadly floating away from the grasp of its employees.

The political issues described are also balanced with more personal stories involving the central characters, for example the love story between Meg and Gideon, the frustrated ambitions of Ellen and the sadness of health issues faced by Jackie White, supported by his loving wife Peggy.

Penned and directed by Lorne Campbell, with music and lyrics by Sting, the themes are strong and serious, dealing with such issues as abandonment (in relationships and in terms of walking away from hometown industries) and the power of individuals to make a difference, which is seen not only in single mum Meg's bravery in surviving on her own, but also in the stand the shipyard employees take against the Government's move to quash them. At many points in the story, the personal events taking place between the characters seem to symbolise the wider political plotline.

The music contains some beautiful and haunting choral harmonies, which bring out the strength and unity of the shipyard community, even if they are accompanied by a little too much foot stamping (in my opinion).

The cast members are strong throughout, with great chemistry between former Emmerdale actress Charlie Hardwick as Peggy and Joe McGann as Jackie White.

Notable for their brilliant vocals and heartfelt performances were Frances McNamee as Meg and Richard Fleeshman as Gideon - whose voice bears a striking resemblance to that of Sting.

Although the subject is serious, The Last Ship isn't a depressing show. By the end it feels rather like the audience has been given an entertaining and much needed reminder of the power of the human being to stand up and be counted.

The Last Ship will be running at Royal & Derngate until Saturday, April 28, so there is still a chance to catch it before it sails out of Northampton. See www.royalandderngate.co.uk for more details.