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The Last Ship is a stirring, muscular and deeply moving musical that tells the story of the closing of a shipyard in Wallsend, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in north-east England. Two thousand workers were about to be thrown out of work. Shipbuilding had been done in the area and become a part of the fabric of the community for generations. In fact shipbuilding had been going on in that part of England for some 700 years but by the late 20th century it had become unprofitable and shipyards began closing. The unionized workers of Wallsend took matters in their own hands, occupied the shipyard and decided to finish the last ship on which they were working by themselves. British musician Sting, who comes from that area, has written the music and lyrics with a new book by Lorne Campbell. Sting also plays the part of Jackie White, the union foreman. The workers’ takeover of the shipyard is told along with the personal story of Gideon Fletcher (Oliver Savile) and Meg Dawson (Frances McNamee). The two are young lovers but Fletcher leaves her and joins the navy. Seventeen years later he returns to find out that he has a sixteen-year old daughter, Ellen (Sophie Reid) that he was never told about. There are vignettes of some of the people in the story but we get a closer look at Jackie White (Sting), the union foreman who shows leadership, courage and tenacity despite being mortally ill. Sting’s music and lyrics are muscular, defiant and at times melodic. The workers are told that the shipyard will close just as they are finishing the construction of a ship for which the order has been cancelled. Five hundred of the 2000 will be given jobs dismantling the ship for scrap. Freddy Newlands (Sean Kearns) the owner with a Thatcheresque Baroness Tynedale (Annie Grace) inform and later threaten the workers with police action if they do not leave the ship yard. There is some powerful choral singing. Sting has a thrusting vocal delivery as a strong man who feels deeply about the workers and the injustice of closing the shipyard. Frances McNamee displays some fine vocal flourishes as the abandoned woman who has fight bigotry and raise her out-of-wedlock daughter. Savile has to work hard and sing well to convince her to take him back. The set (by 59 Productions), sound design (Seb Frost) and Lighting Design (Matt Daw) are quite brilliant. There is generous use of projections to give the impression of the hull of a ship, a pub or an interior scene. The sky and the atmosphere in general are dark, threatening and gloomy. The projections show kaleidoscopic effects from a fire to welding sparks, to the demonstrators who take over the shipyard, to the finished ship about to sail down the river. All are highly effective. The Last Ship is about the tragic effect that social change brings. The workers fight to keep an industry that is no longer viable. Sting has great sympathy for them and so do we. It has special resonance for southern Ontario where General Motors announced the closing of a plant in Oshawa. Sting took the play to the workers as a gesture of support for their plight. I won’t tell you the ending if you don’t know it but in the end you will get a marvellous musical and you can think about the workers in the musical and in Oshawa after you leave the theatre. The Last Ship continues until March 24, 2019 at the Princess of Wales Theatre

March 8, 2019

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