What happens when the heart and soul of a community is ripped away? That’s the question at the heart of The Last Ship, the 2014 musical about the decline of an industrial British town that finds its shipbuilding center in the process of being shut down.
After a stint in Toronto, The Last Ship arrives in Los Angeles this Tuesday, Jan. 14 at the Ahmanson Theatre for a run through Feb. 16, with star, musician and co-creator Sting (of The Police and Dune fame). Directed by Lorne Campbell, the production is a touring version of the show that started at Newcastle upon Tyne in 2018. It’s the first time that the musical has been performed in the United States since its 2015 Broadway run.
The show has been heavily revamped since then, with John Logan and Brian Yorkey’s book being updated by Campbell and Sting ahead of the United Kingdom production.
“It felt like the big thing for us was a real connection to the politics of Britain in the 1980s to now,” Campbell told Los Angeles Downtown News. “There’s such a relationship in the political reality today in the United Kingdom and America to the seeds sowed by Thatcher and Reagan with deregulation and privatization. This incremental degradation of workers rights and dignity…to tell the story in Britain we had to root it in that.”
The musical draws from Sting’s own youth in an industrial town, as well as his albums. It follows Gideon Fletcher (Oliver Savile), a young man who returns to his hometown of Wallsend, Tyne and Wear after living abroad in the navy. The shipyard is shuttering, leaving his childhood friends and their families unsure of what is in store for them. That also includes his former sweetheart Meg (Frances McNamee). As the town worries about its future, labor organizer Jackie White (Sting) tries to fight to build the titular ship before everything is shut down.
For McNamee, who grew up in a former mining town near where The Last Ship is set, a number of plot points felt resonant to her. She said that seeing the heart of a town ripped out with no plan to help it can be devastating.
“That leaves a community broken down struggling to figure out what to do next. No one knows what they’re doing,” she said. “I’ve seen that happen to people I know.”
With so much real-world experience looped into the production, the cast and crew feel like they are tapping into current and relevant themes. Campbell said that in the aftermath of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, and in the time of major austerity, those ideas and worries are tragically in people’s minds again. He added that with political division in the United States and ongoing inequality, he suspects that it will strike a similar response in Los Angeles.
Despite the heavy themes, the show is not bleak, McNamee added.
“I think for the people from the northeast of England, and for anyone really, is that when we stand together, we’re stronger than anything we can do on our own,” she said. “That should resonate with anyone anywhere.”
A major part of that optimism comes from the musical’s score and songs. Campbell said that the music draws on Umbrian folk traditions as well as Irish and Scottish influences, but also has more modern, Kurt Vile-esc rock tracks as well. McNamee said that over the course of the last two stagings of The Last Ship, the crew pushed for more intense renditions of songs, including one of her opening numbers, “If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor.” There are also familiar songs from Sting’s own repertoire, such as Saville and McNamee’s big duet in the second act “When We Danced.”
“Some songs are much more recognizably Sting in their harmonies and chords,” Campbell added. “It’s a piece that’s a very personal journey for Sting, including in the music.”
To achieve the scope of the dying town, the production went for a minimalistic route with its set. The backdrop is the enormous dry dock of the shipyard, with industrial fixtures. The rest is portrayed through projections from the company 59 Productions. There are minimal props, only a few chairs, with the actors instead playing off incorporeal settings. In some cases they are grounded locations, from Gideon’s home to the bar where White and his fellow laborers meet, other times they are more abstract locations.
“As a director it’s a major gift to go from pub to house to shipyard in the click of a finger,” Campbell said with a laugh.
Both Campbell and McNamee said they’re interested in seeing how crowds at the Ahmanson react to the musical.
“All of the shows we’ve done previously, the audience seems galvanized at the end,” McNamee said. “There’s that message there that we can stand up, we don’t have to just lie down and take it.”
The Last Ship runs Tuesday, Jan. 14-Feb. 16 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., (213) 628-2772 or centertheatregroup.org.