Whether you’ve seen the 1997 film or not, references to HMS Titanic are about as unmissable as the gigantic iceberg that pieces this tragic tale. It comes as no surprise, then, that in this colossal musical by Maury Yeston, the piece is stronger when it leaves the facts and figures firmly behind, and focuses on the sorry souls who voyage ever-closer to disaster at an irresponsibly testing speed.
While Yeston’s re-imagining of the story is oddly preoccupied with marriage (they’ve been married for forty-odd years; she’s pretending that it’s already happened; he’s just sent a proposal by telecom; etc, etc, etc…), the real energy comes from negotiations of class. From the filthy men firing the furnaces, to the three lower class Kates who kip in the lower decks with the rats (the girls were wrong in thinking that they were the first to board this new ship), through the middle classes in their cramped yet affordable berths, to the upper classes kicking their well-heeled heels high on the top decks, this musical gives a layered visualisation of the people that populated this ambitious “floating city”.
Thanks to Simon Money’s impeccable voice coaching, it’s easy to ascertain the neighbo[u]rhoods from which our characters are from, whether they be the monied consumer meccas of NYC, or the unremarkable rural settlements that pepper the space between Nottingham and Leicester. But it’s David Woodhead’s costume design that really adds character to this rapidly shifting ensemble, as it displays a textured and absorbing attention to detail that leaves plenty to think about.
In murky, neatly-matched colours and fussy shoulders, we see the wholesome aspirations of the lower-class women eager to become governesses and maids on the other side of the pond. Her neat outfit echoing the costume of the traditional sailor, Claire Marlow’s gloriously petty Caroline Neville models the latest trends in class aspiration in a look that is artfully out of place. Macy’s owner Isidor Straus and his wife Ida look effortlessly elegant as they dress in fabrics as rich as they are.
If that wasn’t enough, there’s a secondary strata at play here, as costume choices illuminate the hierarchy that exists amongst the ship’s staff, from the slacks that exaggerate the brutish, masculine strength of head stoker Barrett, to the shiny buttons of the misguided captain. Away from the core guests, there’s humour in how a frock embodies the bump that is the latest social scandal, and an unexpected sad novelty in the historic life-jackets, simple pinafores of white cotton, patterned with basic floats.
When you cut the story of the Titanic right down, the real intrigue is in the clash between the dark tragedy of the loss of life and the dazzling aspiration and ambition of the ship’s designers, dreamers and socialites. This opposition is elegantly illuminated in Howard Hudson’s light design.
We enter to see naval architect Thomas Andrews (Greg Castiglioni) alone and making careful notes. In a scene that evokes both an intimate study and a public trial, the bright, accusatory spotlight upon Andrews gives us the opportunity to interrogate his actions with the benefit of our centenary-old hindsight.
As Titanic continues, the detailing of the lighting does justice to the work’s swiftly oscillating mood. The affluent stars who demand society’s focus enter the ship in bold light before lavishly dining in the bright and showy company of the captain – but as the feast is interrupted by news of danger, the light drops, greying the healthy complexion of our upper-class diners, and thinning the borders of their immaculately styled bubble.
In the time it takes for this failed voyage to pan out, Hudson takes us through so many different zones, both temporal and emotional. His work illustrates night and day, interiors and exteriors, moored and marooned, aspiration and shame, pride and ignorance. The lack of light dished out on the poor is no coincidence – after the management has calculated who is most entitled to a seat on a lifeboat, low light positions the poor in the locked dungeons of the lower decks – out of sight and mind.
While it often pivots on the border of emotional, Titanic lessens the blow as it drifts off into tedious statistical details and sentimentality. And so the design triumphs, neatly offering up the dreams and failures of this significant event.