Showing a cross section of life on ill-fated Titanic
Unlike many current shows based on Hollywood movies Titanic the Musical is nothing to do with the 1997 film so don't expect to see two young lovers embracing on the ship's prow to the strains of My Heart Will Go On.
Both, of course, tell the story of the fateful maiden voyage in 1912 of the supposedly unsinkable liner, but that’s where the similarity begins and ends, according to Niall Sheehy from the cast of the musical.
“It is the story of the crew and passengers,” he explains. “All the characters in the piece were real people aboard the ship, obviously some of the details may have been slightly dramatised for the sake of creating that arc.”
A story which ends with 1517 men, women and children losing their lives does not seem to have the makings of an upbeat show.
“On face value it doesn’t seem the most likely source material for a musical,” agrees Sheehy, “but in a sense it is no different from a show like Wicked where we know what happened, there’s this girl who ends up the wicked witch. It’s not about the ending but about what happens getting you there.
“It’s not so much about what happens to the ship but what happens to the people aboard the ship. The way Peter Stone, who wrote the book, and Maury Yeston who wrote the music have structured the show is that in Act One we meet a cast of 21 characters and you begin to connect with all these people with hopes and ambitions of their own.
“And there is obviously that point in the story where things start to go wrong. But instead of thinking, ‘oh the ship is going to sink’, you start to wonder what is going to happen to this person or those two characters. So the drama is not in the story of the ship but rightfully the people on board. The tension rises from hoping everyone can make it off the ship.”
The actor from Bray, near Dublin, is playing Fred Barrett, a stoker in the engine room. “You could probably say he is a revolutionary, he abhors the class system,” he observes. “We learn he had previously worked in the mines and wasn’t happy with that and has embarked on this new journey in his life on the ship and he’s quickly found out it is no different. Where you are born in the class system is where you remain and he is one of the first to realise that your dreams may not be fulfilled.
“I enjoy the character. His story goes beyond just his work and there’s another side to it. How he is eager to get home to his other half. He’s a powerful character but romantic at heart.”
It is also hard to imagine how you can stage something involving a giant liner, the sea, not to mention an iceberg and a sinking
Unlike the original Broadway production with a cast of 60 actors and a massive three-tiered set, the design here presents a cross-section.
“You quickly understand which part of the ship you are looking at through the lighting and the work they did on designing that is so effective that every scene you can feel the heat of the engine or the chill of being up on deck. It’s not giving away any spoilers to say that the ship does sink at one point so the set has one or two tricks up its sleeve as well.”
As the show goes around the country the cast have found that connections to the Titanic run deep. “People send messages saying my great great grandfather worked on the boat and so on.,” observes Sheehy. The show has already been to Southampton (where the Titanic set sail from) and Belfast (where it was built) but they are finding it resonates well beyond that.
Titanic the Musical is at the Lyceum from Monday to Saturday.