Titanic The Musical - AIMS - Adjudicator's Critique 2018

Tuesday 15th May 2018 at 12:14 PM

The following is the public section of the adjudicator's report on our production of Titanic The Musical, by AIMS Adjudicator, Ciarán Mooney:

The Titanic experience began as soon as the audience entered the premises in Castlerea. The foyer in the venue was spectacularly decorated with endless examples of Titanic trivia and memorabilia. The box office looked like the deck of a ship, complete with a life buoy. On the walls, there were passenger lists, a Titanic jigsaw, newspaper articles, blueprints of the decks of the ship and a colouring competition. Under each person's seat was the name of a real person who had boarded the Titanic, and the audience were able to check on the way out if they had survived or perished.

For those who are wondering, the show is not based on the 1997 movie with Leo and Kate. Each character is based on a real person who actually sailed on the ship. The events form a linear narrative most of us are familiar with; the passengers board, as we are introduced to the somewhat uncomfortable class divide, those behind the scenes bicker about the fact that the ship should be sped up, the ship hits the iceberg and tragedy strikes. There are too many characters in the story for us to really care about most of them. That said, it is a moving event, and the inclusion of Irish characters stirs something in our emotional DNA. The production itself was very good, with lovely moments of direction, rousing choral singing and fine principal performances.

Director Niall Heaney used the space very well to structure a narrative that requires the enormity of the Titanic tale to be staged on one stand-alone set, with various vignettes exploring the stories of an endless selection of characters. We began with a simple set-up of a stand in the corner with blue-prints of the ship, which would be where we were introduced to ship-designer Thomas Andrews, pondering over his work as boarding action began behind the gauze.

The opening number effectively contained various character archetypes, spanning the classes and professionals impacted by the "ship of dreams". The accents here, Cockney and Scottish etc., were all very good. The smoke in the boiler room was very atmospheric, as it built and built, wafting out into the audience, giving us a taster of the choking conditions these stokers would have endured. At one point, after the collision, a tea trolley rolled across the stage. This was an excellent trick, simply but ingeniously indicating that the ship was at a slant.

"Blame" created a nice piece of drama where the three men who had a hand to play in the disaster really went for each other. The moment the slow-motion red-swashed chaos of the ship appeared behind Mr. Andrews, as he emotionally re-designed the ship in his head, was impactful. Each person did well delivering their solo dialogue that described the deaths of those at sea. Lights behind the gauze came on to reveal the lost souls, and the survivors recounting the events turned to face them (with the guilt-ridden Ismay standing in the centre holding the model of the ship, creating a dramatic and emotive ending).

Set design by John O'Donoghue endeavoured to achieve simplicity in a narrative that is quite complicated. The wings were decorated in blueprints of the decks. The black material covered the stage, giving us a hint of what was behind, without giving away the whole set until the beginning of the show. A gangway for the passengers to board the ship would be easily retracted on departure.

The three regular ship doors worked so well to create various locations in the ship. They worked as general entrances and quarter doors that would be banged on in the middle of night during the panic. Red curtains were hung from them to depict an upper-class event and were replaced with bars to stage the dramatic moments when the lower classes were trapped below deck. I loved the subtle projections over the door; in a simple font, like what a telegram might use. In a world full of giant screens, this was a tasteful use of modern technology to evoke events which took place over 100 years ago.

The watch-tower was wheeled on against a glorious star-cloth. I am not always convinced of the suitability of star-cloths in some shows, particularly in scenes set in cities. It was a clear starry night, on the date Titanic foundered, and this worked excellently well here. There were lots of champagne flutes, brandy glasses, cards and cigars during the upper-class soirées.

The moment everyone was waiting for would be how well the set would fall apart once the ship foundered. I think this was achieved to a good standard. Parts of the ship were askew and lopsided with railings at an angle.

Director Niall Heaney and Liam Feeney designed the lights. Lighting through the grill of the boiler room looked cool. The eerie greenish freeze, as the young boy announced the dinner sittings, effectively showed the passing of the days and the increasing pressure on the Captain to speed up the ship. The spooky light, filled with smoke, for the final moments of Act One created a sense of foreboding.

Shane Farrell, in that dashing piano tie, provided musical direction and conduction on the evening. He was positioned in the corner of the theatre with the piano player, while the rest of the musicians spilled over into an adjacent room. His instructions to the sixteen musicians were very clearly given and they provided a sound that was epic, dangerous, romantic and exciting.

Principal vocals were excellent throughout and the choral singing had so much power. The chorus presented as though they were very well rehearsed. There did not appear to be as much harmony required in this show than there is in most other shows. While the chorus confidently belted out their numbers, there were times when it appeared to be more in unison than many other pieces I have seen. If that is how it is written, then absolutely fair enough.

Sound was by Liam Feeney. The hopeful hoot-hoot of the ship as it departed was well done. There was a lovely echo effect on the choral singing of "Hymn, God Lift Me Up", which made the ensemble sound as though they were singing in a cathedral.

I hate being negative. It is not my thing. But the show was so loud that at one point I thought my eardrum, the right one in particular, was going to burst. There were eighty people and sixteen musicians, so I imagine they were hard to tame. Little amplification was necessary, I would argue, but amplified they were.

Choreographer Hazel McLynn ensured energetic routines throughout, which captured the time period and the social standing of the characters taking part. The opening number cleverly grouped the various classes into separate sections, placing the officers/crew on the bridge above. The simple bobbing up and down by the maids in the upper-class soirée worked very well. "Doing the Latest Rag" was a joyful number with the four couples downstage doing different moves to those above, and everyone joining in together for the last minute.

John Griffin as Captain Edward J. Smith was suitably imposing and authoritative as he captained one last maiden voyage before his retirement. It was clear that his character understood his responsibility to all those on board. He portrayed the struggle between himself and owner J. Bruce Ismay, who pushed for more speed to get better headlines, with competence. With a heavy heart and a burdened conscience, he went against his better judgement and complied with Ismay’s demands. He sang well in the trio "Blame", when each man was pointing out the other's involvement in the disaster. His voice was powerful as he announced that the ship was lost.

David Cooke as Designer Thomas Andrews gave us a man of integrity, understated but strong, who acted as the moral compass for the show. He portrayed the anguish he felt as he learns that the compromises he made in the construction of the Titanic has contributed to its demise. It was clear from his opening scenes that he has a good voice, and he performed "Andrew's Vision" very well.

Pat Walsh was very good as Owner of the Titanic, Bruce Ismay. Factual or not, he played the villain of the show, greedy for success and manipulative in how he forces the Captain to speed up and take a colder, more Northerly route. He was excitable about his achievements, yet he could really manage to get a rise out of those around him. He, too, added nicely to the "Blame" trio.

Brian Flanagan was striking as Coal Stoker Frederick Barrett. He did very well at balancing his function as questioner of the misguided decision to speed up the ship, trapped in a position of no influence, and a man in love with a girl back home, planning a future as he writes to her asking for her hand in marriage. He is a very good singer and captured all of the angst he felt about the ship's increasing speed in "Barrett's Song". His singing of "The Proposal" was lovely.

Conor Walsh was adorable as Wireless Operator Harold Bride. His accent was excellent, and he has a very good singing voice. He was cute as a button in how he said that he had no time for romance. Vulnerable, cute and shy, he was in love with his telegraph machine but understood Frederick's need to send a message to his would-be fiancée, without paying. His solo moment ("Fair the well...") in the finale was very nice. The counterpoint and solo vocals from Barrett, Bride and Clarke in the finale were lovely also.

Our working-class Irish contingent was made up of three Kates and a Jim. Kate McGowan (Head Kate) was played very well by Patricia Collins. Her character is escaping the fact that she fell pregnant for a married man while single in Ireland. She needs a husband and with her assertive charm, convinces a passenger Jim Farrell to take her on and marry her, despite her condition. John McHugh was dashing as Jim. He was well able for her but could not help but be amused by Kate's confidence and self-assured beauty, eventually falling for her. While he could turn on the confident boyish charm, he was strong in the scenes when things got serious.

Kate Mullins, played by Zara Walshe, intended to live with her sister and become a maid. She was the most frightened of the Kates, overwhelmed by the scope of everything, and grateful for the companionship of her fellow Irish third-class passengers. Michelle Cooke gave us a tough, no-nonsense character as Kate Murphey. All three Kates showed off excellent vocals and ability to harmonize in "Lady's Maid".

Anthony Flanagan as First Officer Murdoch showed a lovely voice in his solo number "To be a Captain". He presented as more cautious than Ismay, bringing balance to the arguments about speed. Joey O'Flanagan was very good as Second Officer Charles Lightoller, the highest-ranking officer to survive, and it is through his accounts of the sinking that most of our knowledge of the events is gleaned. He was suitably competent and confident in his official role and sang well in his featured solo moments. Kevin Moran as Quartermaster Robert Hitchens was responsible for steering the ship and carrying out the helm orders. He did very well as the officer manning the wheel the night the ship hit the iceberg, obeying that famous "hard a' starboard" order in the climax Act One. Robert Reid showed off a good voice as Lookout Frederick Fleet Good, the man in the crow's nest who dramatically shouted "Iceberg, right ahead!" during the final dramatic moment of the first act.

Ivan Moran as the haughty first-class steward Henry Etches, oozing in experience having served many a celeb in his time, provided some nice comic relief throughout the evening. He was very good at handling that wordy "What a Remarkable Age This is" number. Aidan Flanagan as bandmaster Wallace Hartley vocalized well and was full of character in his performance of "Doing the Latest Rag" and he treated us to some nice solos behind the piano during "Autumn".

Eugene Collins as poor long-suffering Edgar Beane, was funny as he put up with his equally comic wife Alice, played by Majella Flanagan. Frustrated by her lowly status as a middleclass passenger, she was forever looking to climb the social ladder whilst gossiping about all those she envies. They both provided a lot of comedy, yet their rendition of "I Have Danced" was nicely touching.

Declan Carroll and Jackie Kenny were great as Isidor and Ida Strauss. Mrs. Strauss had a good European accent and a very lovely voice when she sang her solo bits on "No Moon". Both she and her husband gave us a gorgeous and powerful rendition of "Still", their voices blending beautifully together in this adorable moment.

Jamie Mee and Janet Feeney were very nice playing "The Clarkes", a couple who are enjoying pretending to be married, because their love is forcing them to elope (and to save on accommodation fees on the ship). Born to first class, Janet exuded class as Caroline. They clearly showed that they loved one another, with Caroline willing to leave fortune behind to be with him. Filled with hope and ambition, Charles dreams of being a journalist in New York City. The adorable partnership of these actors made for highly dramatic scenes when they were parted at the lifeboats. Jamie showed off a great voice in his solo moments of "To the Lifeboats".

Olivia Walsh played Charlotte Cardoza, the woman who booked Titanic's most expensive suite, and travelled with fourteen trunks full of designer clothing and jewellery. Her unconventional ideas set the pulses racing of some of her first-class male counterparts, as she challenged the gender traditions onboard. Olivia had all of the charisma and charm to do this, captivating the group of men with her good humour.

The wealthy Astors (a pairing Kate Winslet points out in the movie if anyone recalls) were played with competence by Pat McDonnell and Emer Kelly, who were returning to give birth to their first child after a honeymoon, where they had been waiting out the gossip that followed their scandalous marriage (He divorced and remarried without delay, which was uncommon. Plus, she was considered terribly young and all too-quickly pregnant).

The American mining tycoon, Benjamin Guggenheim, was played by Chris Duffy. He was a regular cross-Atlantic traveller, with a mistress in Paris. The mistress, Parisian singer Madame Aubart (played by Danielle Carroll), accompanied him on the Titanic. John B. Thayer, the Vice-President of the Pennsylvania Railroad, was played by John Hanley and his "old money" wife Marion was played by Caroline Madigan. Their parting at the lifeboats was a heart-breaking moment, as John tries to reassure her that they will be fine.

The Wideners, heirs to a large fortune, enjoying the Titanic for leisure purposes, were played very well by Adrian Murray and Angela Webb. Edith Corse Evans was played by Niamh O'Flanagan, a single woman who was returning to America from a funeral in England. Unfortunately, there was only one spot left, and she convinced a friend to take it, because the friend had children. Gambler and card shark J.H. Rogers was played by Cathal Tivnan, who gave us some interesting scenes where he was trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the other passengers. Micheál Ward played The Major, who provided some comic relief in the series of upper-class dining room scenes with stories of his foreign adventures and encounters with "crazed, godless savages."

It can be argued that each class is a character in itself, and within each one there is representation by principal performances. There were four primary groups of people; the three classes and the crew. Together they gave powerful performances. There was a strong sense of confidence in the powerful choral singing, suggesting that they were well-prepared by Musical Director Shane Farrell. Facial expressions etc. were top-notch. The children in the opening number were great at acting excited and their timing was excellent. Their scrambling scenes were so well-acted with each and every person on stage showing full commitment, and their slow-motion section was great too.

I am happy to report that Castlerea Musical Society did not leave any stone unturned in the costume department. There are three greater ensemble casts – upper, middle and lower classes, and a variety of crew costumes to source. Not only that, but the first-class passengers, for example would need day wear, evening gowns, silk robes for the night-time panic scenes etc. These needs ran through all the other classes, with each class having appropriate attire for all occasions, suitably suggesting their caste and the context of the scenes e.g. arrival, social, night-time etc. Hair and Make-up encouraged likenesses between the actors and the real-life people they were portraying. There was a clear distinction between all of the classes on the ship.

This show is a massive undertaking, visually and chorally and I am glad to report that the society delivered a fine version. Congratulations to Castlerea Musical Society and all who sail in her on their 50th Anniversary.

Ciarán Mooney
21st April 2018