The Last Ship
April 25th 2015
This was one of the most interesting and moving musical experiences I’ve ever witnessed; yet 24 hours later I’m still not sure how to describe it.
Part Folk concert, part musical theatre, part history lesson and part conceptual extravaganza; but it worked!
For some unknown reason, a few years ago Pop-star Sting decided to write a musical for the stage loosely based on his album The Soul Cages; about a man (roughly Sting’s age) who returns to his family home in Newcastle upon Tyne after travelling the world and subsequently missing the death and funeral of his estranged father; at the same time as the town’s once world famous shipyards, were in the last throws of a death rattle. Any similarities to his own life are purely coincidental.
Sting’s Musical Theatre production, The Last Ship subsequently opened in Chicago before moving to Broadway in that New York City where it received; shall we say ‘mixed reviews’ and closed after just four months.
But let’s forget about that, because Geordieland’s Prodigal Son returned home last night bringing his Masterwork with him to perform at the Region’s Cultural home, Sage Gateshead alongside the cream of the local Folk scene (and Jimmy Nail).
Eighteen months in the planning and a single evening’s entertainment which turned into three due to popular demand (plus an afternoon session with a choir of 750 school children); tonight’s performance began with local lass Kathryn Tickell playing a beautiful lament on the Northumbrian pipes as Sting made his was onto the darkened stage.
After an opening song Sting thanked everyone for coming and ‘introduced the area’ and where his own personal history fitted in, to the excited fans; some of whom had travelled from Europe and even the USA for this very special occasion; and what followed over the next two and a half hours was a celebration of working class culture on Tyneside (albeit through rose coloured glasses at times) and its decline and fall, told through the love story of Gideon and Meg (and their illegitimate son, a priest, a gobby shop-steward and of course the workers in the shipyard plus a handful of other characters who come and go in the blink of an eye).
The whole concept was dazzling as Sting stripped back the Musical Theatre side of things and included a handful of extra Folk songs via cameos from local artists Kathryn Tickell and her brother Peter, The Unthanks, Charlie Richmond, the Wilson Family and actress Val McLane, all of whom were allowed their moment in the spotlight; much to the delight of everyone in the venue; especially Sting himself who looked on like a benign parent as they proved what great talent we have on our doorstep.
Some of the songs were truly exceptional – The Last Ship and Dead Man’s Boots both sung by Sting, Jimmy Nail leading the ensemble and audience on We’ve Got Nowt Else (which will surely go onto become a modern Folk Classic), the Wilson Family singing their version of Kipling’s Big Steamers, Val McLane stealing the show with Mrs. Dees’ Rant, Jimmy Nail’s haunting When We Dance, all three songs by the Unthanks and the song Sting wrote after a night with Billy Connolly – Jock the Singing Welder.
For me personally; and I’m sure many here tonight will disagree, but the inclusion of Jo Lawry as ‘Meg’ jarred somewhat on a night that celebrated all things ‘Geordie’ and songs predominantly sung in the local dialect (I had to smile as Sting’s own accent became broader as the night wore on). While Jo’s singing voice is damn near perfect and her songs were necessary to move the story along, she was ‘too perfect;’ when a more earthier voice, preferably with a local accent could have fitted in more naturally (Rachel Unthank? Hannah Rickard?).
That; and the ironic choice of Cunard as sponsors (moving their shipbuilding to the Far East hastened the closure of the very same shipyards) plus the sight and sound of the chattering classes drinking champagne were the only flaws I could find on an evening that not only celebrated our local culture and industry; but the venue itself – Sage Gateshead which is now 10 years old and keeps bringing world class musicians, collaborations and events to our little corner of England.
Perhaps like Gideon, it’s his age that has drawn drawn Sting home; and he most certainly couldn’t or wouldn’t have written score without absence making the heart grow fonder, but tonight one of the world’s most successful and wealthiest musicians proved he really is a Geordie lad at heart.
Photo – set http://www.harrisonaphotos.co.uk/Music/Sting/