Captains of industry and those who hail from the landed gentry are not likely to enjoy The Last Ship as much as we who carry the memories of a ship’s millwright in our DNA. While the former may squirm, the latter may experience a thrum, as I did, in those ancient cells. The call was visceral and emotional.
The Last Ship is a musical that explores the demise of the shipyards in Tyneside in the late 1980s. If musical and demise of industry sound like an oxymoron, I understand. But think of Come From Away and 911. Artistry, compassion, and music can surmount loss and grief. And that is exactly what happens in The Last Ship.
There are three strands to this play that covers a span of seventeen years. There’s the story of a ship’s foreman, Jackie White, (Sting) who keeps a rough and tumble crew of skilled craftsmen (millwright’s, carpenters etc.) towing the line while his wife, Peggy White, (Jackie Morrison) a Registered Nurse bandages up the men’s scraps and breaks, and hands out pills which will never touch the core of what is killing them—mesothelioma. Then there are two high school sweethearts Meg Dawson (Francis McNamee), a smart young thing who is writing her ‘O’ levels with a view to becoming a lawyer or doctor, and Gideon Fletcher (Oliver Saville) who cannot bear to sign up for work in the yards. Gideon leaves and returns seventeen years later. And finally, there is the story of work—the meaning of craftsmen’s jobs that have been done by generations of forebears—the camaraderie of a tight-knit group who have known each other since infancy—and the implications for middle-aged workers and their community when work is taken away by global competition.
The set is extraordinary. The combination of set pieces, video, and overlaid screens can move the audience easily from the gates of the shipyard to the interiors of a pub or homes, alongside a blast furnace, and inside a chapel. And throughout there is the presence of the sea—its thunderous roar and its saltwater spray. The set lighting is exquisite. At one point, there is an image of the men inside the chapel that looks like an old master’s painting. The set and lighting designers deserve their due!
The score captured me from the beginning. There are the songs and their music which tell the shipyard story through reminiscence, sorrow, and better times. Then there are the foot-stomping rhythms which have the same effect on me as tabla drumming. They call me, and I hope you, to gather round and bear witness. The Last Ship pulls out of Toronto at the end of March. Get on board before it leaves!
The Last Ship is playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre until Sunday, March 24, 2019
Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humour despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend.