By Ed Power
An over-engineered folly runs aground on the basic laws of economics. The metaphor is applicable equally to the decaying hulks that populated the shipyards of Tyneside in the early 1980s and to Sting’s musical about his childhood there.
Unveiled with tremendous fanfare on Broadway in 2014, the $15m Last Ship shuttered after four months, having lost $750,000 per week.
One theory was that America was an unsuitable audience for a story grounded so completely in Sting’s early life in England’s rust-belt North East. But the singer has never given up on the musical, describing it as the work of which he is proudest.
An indication of his passion for it was his presence in Dublin for its Irish premiere.
The former Police man even got up on stage at the end to join the cast in a group singalong.
The story is, true to Sting’s billing, intensely personal, with the main character of Gideon Fletcher (Richard Fleeshman) clearly based on the young Gordon Sumner (Sting’s given name). With nothing ahead of him in his home town but a life of drudgery in the shipyard, Gideon leaves behind his girlfriend, Meg (Frances McNamee), to chase freedom on the high seas.
When he returns 17 years later, all is changed utterly. Meg has a surprise for him, and a shock awaits the yard workers, too, as Thatcherite economics threaten their jobs. It’s a story with particular resonances for Tyneside, though perhaps less so in Dublin, where industrialisation never really took hold (it may, however, speak to people from Cork and Belfast).
Yet, however heartfelt, not all of the songs are from Sting’s top drawer. Ensemble pieces, such as ‘Shipyard’ and ‘Island of Souls’, have the fumbling, overreaching qualities of a beginner’s effort.
Better are the ballads, which take the temperature of Sting’s soul — with ‘Dead Man’s Boots’, in particular, tapping his troubled relationship with his own father (a dynamic that inspired an entire record, 1991’s The Soul Cages).
Still, the production values are top-rank and Fleeshman and McNamee are compelling as lovers separated by ambition and circumstance.
Police fans will enjoy a new perspective on their idol’s life and work; for everyone else, The Last Ship qualifies as a curio that just about stays afloat.