Having bombed on Broadway, this musical by Sting about the shipbuilding industry is being revived on its native soil with a new book by its director, Lorne Campbell. The only mystery is why the show ever premiered in the US in the first place: it is a deeply British musical that champions Tyneside life and that leaves you in no doubt where it stands on Thatcherite economics. It was received, quite rightly, with full-throated acclaim by its Newcastle audience.
The show, which originated in a concept album by Sting, explores his complex feelings about England’s north-east, where he grew up. The hero, Gideon, rejects the idea of following his father into the Wallsend shipyards, sails the world and returns 17 years later hoping to pick up where he left off with his former girlfriend, Meg. But Gideon is not only romantically naive. This is the 1980s and the local shipyard is abruptly threatened with closure by its owners amid government refusal to sanction “a Soviet-style bailout”. The only solution to both sides of the story is for Gideon and the workers to seize control of their own destiny.
The show is at its strongest when dealing with the workers, and produces some of the most thrilling choral writing I’ve heard in a British musical since Howard Goodall’s The Hired Man. An opening number itemises the hardships faced by the riveters and welders, and Sting later shows his capacity to seize on a single phrase – The Only Life We Know Is in the Shipyard – and turn it into a stirring, foot-stamping anthem. After this, Gideon’s private problems seem less exciting and the initial lyrics – “I’ll find us a berth / At the end of the Earth,” he tells his childhood sweetheart – don’t hold out much promise. But the mature Meg is a fascinating character who enjoys her independence and informs us, in a rousing number that has faint echoes of Kurt Weill, that “a sailor is not a man to be trusted”.
There have clearly been some big changes since Broadway: a salt-of-the-earth priest has disappeared, along with Meg’s partner whom Gideon seeks to displace. The ending has also been brought up to date, with the story’s celebration of worker-control extended into a plea for equal pay and preservation of the NHS. Even if the story lapses into wish-fulfilment at times – you wonder how Gideon is going to man the rescued ship, Utopia, that he sails down the slipway – Sting’s score is chorally vivid and the show’s heart is in the right place.
It also looks exceptionally handsome: the design, by 59 Productions, uses black and white projections to capture the gaunt grandeur of the shipyard girders against scudding clouds. Campbell’s production yields strong performances from Richard Fleeshman as the guilt-haunted Gideon and Frances McNamee as Meg, while Joe McGann and Charlie Hardwick are touching as a pair of devoted oldsters. I especially warmed to Katie Moore as the voice of youth and Charlie Richmond as a bookish worker whose conversation is peppered with classical allusions. After Newcastle, the show goes on a national tour and my only question is whether, in its vigorous endorsement of regional and working-class values, it may be too good for London.