The Last Ship @ Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Sting’s musical docks in the Scottish capital, bringing Geordie sunshine before finding a sunset into which to sail, leaving us all the better for the experience

Review by Donald C. Stewart | 19 Jun 2018

A hymn to the memory of Sting’s relationship with his home town of Wallsend, Tyne and Wear, The Last Ship is an assured musical exploration of the industrial break up in the 1980s of a tight knit community told with an infectious verve, vitality and defiance.

The story follows two couples: love’s young dream Gideon and Meg (Matt Corner and Parisa Shahmir play their younger versions, Richard Fleeshman and Frances McNamee play the older) and the steadfast married Peggy (Penelope Woodman) and Jackie White (Joe McGann).

Gideon and Meg are separated by his ambition as he leaves, as a young man, for the sea, while Peggy and Jackie’s marriage is forged in the shadow of the shipyard. It is Gideon’s homecoming, 17 years later, that serves as the backdrop to the play. He returns to the startling revelation of unknowingly leaving a pregnant Meg behind and a shipyard in crisis. The 1980s policies of Margaret Thatcher's government leave the yard with little future as it looks for a buyer, otherwise, it'll be forced to close and the last ship that they complete will be dismantled – a final indignity. The workers decide, under Jackie’s direction, to occupy the yard, finish the ship and Gideon volunteers to sail it into the Tyne.

Director Lorne Campbell's tribute to the shipbuilders of the North East is a tale well-known, often told but frequently forgotten. Performances are impressive and tight as an ensemble within this simple but beautifully told story. The central pairs have the responsibility of keeping things in focus and these actors have the pathos, the dignity and the tone absolutely right – particularly Woodman as Peggie.

The staging, designed by 59 Productions, weaves physical sets with projection, turning the claustrophobic backdrop into a light fest of beauty and adds scale to a story set in a local community that has themes of the universal. The Last Ship's biggest strength is Sting's music, which is wonderfully layered and performed with vigour as befits the struggle being told of industrialised beauty and brutality; the music gives this story all the majesty it requires and illuminates the issues of a tough forgotten past. The result is a celebration of the collective strength of a community from a time that it was under threat; a chorale from the past with a sermon for the future.

On tour across the UK, including Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 18-23 Jun: