Review: The Last Ship (Mirvish)

Mirvish presents the Toronto premiere of a new musical written by and featuring Sting Mirvish has brought internationally renowned recording artist Sting to the Toronto stage in a new musical featuring an original score with music and lyrics written by the singer-songwriter. The Last Ship was inspired by Sting’s experiences growing up in the shipbuilding community of Tyne and Wear during the decline of Britain’s shipbuilding industry and the closure of the town’s shipyard. [-----CUT GOES HERE----] The show’s subject matter is well-treaded territory for Mirvish subscribers. The company seems to present a “British working-class struggle” show every few seasons: Billy Elliott was set against the backdrop of the British Miners’ strike of 1984, and Kinky Boots took place in a struggling Northamptonshire shoe factory. Sting’s folk-rock style score for this show is also reminiscent of the style of music in Come From Away. Comparisons with these previous shows are inevitable and, unfortunately, I thought The Last Ship lacked the clarity, flow, driving energy, and compelling sense of urgency of those other shows. I’m always a bit wary of musicals written by recording artists with no prior experience working in the genre of musical theatre. Writing songs for commercial radio is an entirely different art form than writing for musical theatre. In musicals, some songs have to effectively convey a character’s motivations; the music acts as a short-hand to access a character’s emotions. Other songs are supposed to drive the narrative forward. Sting’s songs in The Last Ship don’t really do either. The original songs are sometimes pretty and atmospheric but don’t advance the plot or reveal anything particularly compelling about the characters who sing them. Nor are they the lyrical melodies replete with metaphor and evocative imagery that Sting is known for in his songwriting; they exist somewhere in between. Lorne Campbell’s book scenes (the spoken dialogue between the songs) do most of the heavy-lifting for both character and plot development. As a result, I thought the pacing of the show was halting, and I felt that story never quite found its footing. At its two-and-a-half hour run time, I also found that the show tended to drag in a lot of places. Sting plays the shipyard foreman Jackie White and as an actor he does well enough in the role although his integration with a cast full of seasoned musical theatre performers is not entirely seamless and I thought he did stick out a bit, especially in the group numbers. Though Sting is billed as “starring” in the show, this is really an ensemble piece and he’s more accurately “featured” in the show as one of the five principal leads—Sting only sings the lead in about eight of the show’s 25 musical numbers. Those expecting a Sting-heavy evening may be disappointed in his relatively light role. The other standouts in the cast are the two romantic leads; Gideon Fletcher (Oliver Savile), a man who left town as a kid and is returning for the first time, and Meg Dawson (Frances McNamee), the woman he left behind. Both actors have huge stage presence, big voices, and compelling chemistry with each other. However, the one element in the show that really wowed me is the production design. The show is staged on a single set comprised of a staircase and a few steel girders with the rest of the detail provided by projections layered on a series of overlapping scrims placed throughout the set, often filling the audience member’s entire field of view. The projections by the design studio 59 productions are stunning. Downstage we have a drab, living room set complete with faded wallpaper while in the background we see the towering scaffolds surrounding the massive ship under construction in the shipyard. Scene changes happen in an instant, the projections are sometimes surreal, sometimes highly naturalistic but always magical. Overall, I thought The Last Ship was a mixed bag. If you’re a fan of Sting you’ll likely relish the opportunity to see him perform live in this unique context but if you’re just a casual theatre-goer you may find, as I did, that the show still has room for improvement. Details: The Last Ship is playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre (300 King Street West) through March 24, 2019 Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Wednesday at 1:3 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets $35.00 to $159.00 Tickets are available by phone at 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333, in-person at the Princes of Wales Theatre box office or online at Mirvish.com Photo of Sting and the cast of THE LAST SHIP – Toronto Production 2019. Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann.Mirvish presents the Toronto premiere of a new musical written by and featuring Sting

Mirvish has brought internationally renowned recording artist Sting to the Toronto stage in a new musical featuring an original score with music and lyrics written by the singer-songwriter. The Last Ship was inspired by Sting’s experiences growing up in the shipbuilding community of Tyne and Wear during the decline of Britain’s shipbuilding industry and the closure of the town’s shipyard.

The show’s subject matter is well-treaded territory for Mirvish subscribers. The company seems to present a “British working-class struggle” show every few seasons: Billy Elliott was set against the backdrop of the British Miners’ strike of 1984, and Kinky Boots took place in a struggling Northamptonshire shoe factory. Sting’s folk-rock style score for this show is also reminiscent of the style of music in Come From Away. Comparisons with these previous shows are inevitable and, unfortunately, I thought The Last Ship lacked the clarity, flow, driving energy, and compelling sense of urgency of those other shows.

I’m always a bit wary of musicals written by recording artists with no prior experience working in the genre of musical theatre. Writing songs for commercial radio is an entirely different art form than writing for musical theatre. In musicals, some songs have to effectively convey a character’s motivations; the music acts as a short-hand to access a character’s emotions. Other songs are supposed to drive the narrative forward. Sting’s songs in The Last Ship don’t really do either.

The original songs are sometimes pretty and atmospheric but don’t advance the plot or reveal anything particularly compelling about the characters who sing them. Nor are they the lyrical melodies replete with metaphor and evocative imagery that Sting is known for in his songwriting; they exist somewhere in between.

Lorne Campbell’s book scenes (the spoken dialogue between the songs) do most of the heavy-lifting for both character and plot development. As a result, I thought the pacing of the show was halting, and I felt that story never quite found its footing. At its two-and-a-half hour run time, I also found that the show tended to drag in a lot of places.

Sting plays the shipyard foreman Jackie White and as an actor he does well enough in the role although his integration with a cast full of seasoned musical theatre performers is not entirely seamless and I thought he did stick out a bit, especially in the group numbers. 

Though Sting is billed as “starring” in the show, this is really an ensemble piece and he’s more accurately “featured” in the show as one of the five principal leads—Sting only sings the lead in about eight of the show’s 25 musical numbers. Those expecting a Sting-heavy evening may be disappointed in his relatively light role. 

The other standouts in the cast are the two romantic leads; Gideon Fletcher (Oliver Savile), a man who left town as a kid and is returning for the first time, and Meg Dawson (Frances McNamee), the woman he left behind. Both actors have huge stage presence, big voices, and compelling chemistry with each other.

However, the one element in the show that really wowed me is the production design. The show is staged on a single set comprised of a staircase and a few steel girders with the rest of the detail provided by projections layered on a series of overlapping scrims placed throughout the set, often filling the audience member’s entire field of view.

The projections by the design studio 59 productions are stunning. Downstage we have a drab, living room set complete with faded wallpaper while in the background we see the towering scaffolds surrounding the massive ship under construction in the shipyard. Scene changes happen in an instant, the projections are sometimes surreal, sometimes highly naturalistic but always magical.  

Overall, I thought The Last Ship was a mixed bag. If you’re a fan of Sting you’ll likely relish the opportunity to see him perform live in this unique context but if you’re just a casual theatre-goer you may find, as I did, that the show still has room for improvement.

Details:

  • The Last Ship is playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre (300 King Street West) through March 24, 2019
  • Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Wednesday at 1:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets $35.00 to $159.00
  • Tickets are available by phone at 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333, in-person at the Princes of Wales Theatre box office or online at Mirvish.com

Photo of Sting and the cast of THE LAST SHIP – Toronto Production 2019. Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann.

3 thoughts on “Review: The Last Ship (Mirvish)”

  1. I will admit after seeing the performance last night that there were certainly some improvements to be made but…I totally disagree with the energy and the passion showed by the performers….I was dead ready not to enjoy it but as the play proceeded I found it intriguing then totally enjoyable….let’s start with the improvements…lack of clarity in audio with the drunk..(easy fix)…some of the balance of the ensemble was not always pleasing..sometimes lead voices were drowned out (easy fix)…the pit behind and to the right at times was distracting (especially when it was a darkened scene) (another easy fix)..the choreography was fine but the performers were a little weak (not so easy a fix)…now the positive…loved loved the way it was presented re projection screens very innovative less distracting than seeing scenery being move in and out of focus…the story with it’s different layers started to grow on me until I was hooked (excellent dialogue and acting )…there was to myself anyways an interesting power and excitement with the ensemble voices and at times typical and untypical Sting arrangements were more than pleasing but also very interesting (re composition )….Overall I was quite pleased and entertained ..well worth another look…

    1. Forget those other reviews. The show is fantastic. You hear Sting’s trademark musical stylings in every piece and the show brought both myself and my boyfriend to tears.
      It was poignant and powerful, The musical arrangement had Sting’s signature throughout, it will capture anyone’s heart if you care anything about people and labour struggles. A struggle as fierce as Les Miserables and heartbreakingly true. A thinking person’s show.

  2. I am not a regular theatre goer. I was sitting in the top row on the balcony. I was blown away. I found the songs, and play moving, and full of unexpected twists and turns. The performances are spectacular. It’s also a special meta treat to hear the lyrics and songs sung by the characters which are so biographical of Sting while having Sting there with us. Yes. Sting is a potential draw to the theatre but an afterthought in the performance. His voice does not compare to those of the ensemble. Still, quite remarkable for a guy in his late 60’s, who has never really performed like this, and who is likely decades older than anything else in the cast. The fact that he choose to spent February and March in Toronto only adds to my admiration. I found the whole thing moving and a tremendous gift and opportunity which should not be missed. I was with a few other who were not so moved by the story. But for this 40 something Sting fan the play was the greatest delight.

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