The Last Ship, a musical inspired by Sting’s 1991 album, “The Soul Cages,” is playing at the Golden Gate Theatre (by BroadwaySF) for three weeks. As the SF Chronicle (pink section) says, it is “a love story, a tale of family and friendship, and a passionate homage to the shipbuilding community Sting grew up in.”
Sting was born in Wallsend, North Tyneside, England in 1951. He came of age in the turmoil of the ship-building industry. Director Lorne Campbell said in a recent Chronicle interview that he and Sting feel personal connections to the story. For example, Campbell recalls the miners’ strike where families donated food to the striking men and their families during a period of great unrest in England.
Fear not – this musical brings these accomplished shipworkers to vibrant life as they talk, argue, laugh, love, drink, dance and work on the ships which are their livelihood.
We’ve built battleships and cruisers for her majesty the queen.
The only life we’ve known is in the shipyard.
May the angels protect us as the last ship sails.
The price of their specialized work is high: the uncertainly after a contract is completed and the ship is launched – will there be another contract? And there is the toxic radiation which is blackening their lungs with each year on the job.
Sting wrote the music and lyrics. He plays Jackie White, the shipyard foreman, in a role greatly expanded. Rewritten and restaged from the original Broadway production, this show is streamlined and focused. John Logan and Brian Yorkey wrote the original book. The new book is by Lorne Campbell.
The musical follows two stories. Gideon Fletcher (Oliver Savile) leaves the town of Tyne as a teen and returns some 16 years later to find the girl he left behind. Meg Dawson (Frances McNamee) greets him with all the pent-up anger and pain one would expect, in a bravura performance. Nurse Peggy White (Jackie Morrison) is steady and serene in her loyalty to husband and provides strong support to the wives of the other shipbuilding men.
And the other story is the history of shipbuilding and protest as the working men of Tyne continue a proud tradition dating to the 13th century, when they first began building vessels for the Plantagenet king, Edward 1st of England, in 1294.
Director Lorne Campbell focuses on a community embroiled in the politics of Thatcher’s England. At the center are the women. Said Campbell in Lisa Fung’s article in the Chronicle: “If you go to any working-class community, the women are the cohesion – especially around steel or coal, where men die.”
“There was no strike that ever functioned without female organization, without solidarity,” he continued. Because he is a student of history, the director felt it was important that the women’s story be included.
Besides the obvious physical challenges of working in the shipyard and launching such ships as The Mauretania in 1907 and warships in World War II, there were political challenges. A few prime ministers chose to close the shipyards during economic downturns. Sometimes laborers would occupy a shipyard and stage a work-in, where they continued to build and launch ships despite the government’s proposed closure. In 1972 the government was forced to stand down in the face of this impressive tactic.
The war between the Conservative party and British trade unions continued, until Margaret Thacher won the day. In 1986 major national industries were privatized. Tens of thousands of jobs were lost in coal, steel, shipbuilding and heavy industry.
As Sting says in “The Soul Cages:”
These are the souls of the broken factories
The subject slaves of the broken crown
The dead accounting of old guilty promises
These are the souls of the broken town.
Kudos to the set designers for taking the audience effortlessly from shipyard to workers’ homes, from taverns to the docks at night and during the day, and especially for the poignant news video of wives surrounding the shipyard to offer a barrier between their men and the police/military.
Don’t fret about the accents. Geordie is the dialect of Tyneside in the North East of England, on the border with Scotland. The accent has been softened for this play, and a glossary is included on page six of the program.
Says Sting: “In the world at the moment, there is a sense of anxiety – everywhere at all levels of society. This play is about how you deal with anxiety as a community, how you deal with it as an individual. And that resonates with people…”
The music, the dancing, the earthy wit of these workers and their wives definitely win the day for theatre-goers.