'Titanic' review or 'Must my heart go on?'

‘Titanic’, Music and Lyrics by Maury Yeston
Southwark Playhouse, 31st July 2013
Written for Culture Wars

Are those ropes that the Titanic crew is yanking – or just huge throbbing heart-strings? This latest musical from Southwark Playhouse is one hell of a tear-jerker. Of course it is. Over 1,500 people died on that fateful journey. It is a very sad and very dramatic true story. But does it have to be so cheesy?

One can see this show going down a storm in America. Indeed, Maury Yeston’s score picked up a Tony Award – and it’s pretty strong, with plenty of pace and swagger. The opening numbers swell with expectation and the later numbers are stretched and tense. There’s also a clever social distinction to the score; the clipped and ordered singing of the first class passengers contrasts nicely with the swelling, passionate songs from the crew down below.

The ensemble numbers are blasted out with great confidence and suggest the grandeur of the Titanic (this ‘floating metropolis') and the billowing pride of those on-board. Thom Southerland’s production is fluid and confident, as we jump about the ship between first, second and third class. We move efficiently about the cast and crew, learning about the loves they’ve left behind, the shame they’re fleeing from or success they’re chasing after.  

But everything is exceptionally tidy and Peter Stone’s book, gratingly clean-cut. James-Austen-Murray has a rich and striking voice but his role as the wise ship worker, honest and true, is pretty misty eyed. The third class passengers are uniformly skittish, earthy and passionate. The ship crew are, without exception, deferential and honourable and the first class passengers – as always – are caricatures. Ship owner Ismay (Simon Green) is depicted as an unforgivably smarmy bastard, the tragedy placed almost entirely on his bony shoulders.

A show about ‘Titanic’ was always going to be predictable but it would’ve be nice to have a few surprises along the way; some odd ball characters or a few patches of dialogue that didn’t run as smooth as silk. I also could have done without the dancing dead people. As the ship goes under, the lost souls glide about the stage. My heart didn’t soar – it sank.