Warning, this review contains spoilers: it sinks.

It also takes longer to go down than the actual ship.

And there in a nutshell you have the inevitable inevitability which makes even a totally brilliant staging of a promising score feel over-long and predictable.  Sure, the plots of most popular musicals are already familiar to the customers when they go in to the theatre: Maria will marry Baron von Trapp, Annie will be adopted by Daddy Warbucks, cockney Eliza Doolittle will eventually become a ‘lydy’, but there’s something specially portentous about the Titanic: so often over-dramatised, from the moistly orchestrated de Caprio/Winslet movie to the dry heaving of the Julian Fellowes TV version, that any revisiting of the story is necessarily tainted by previous expositions.  And it’s hard to think of another musical where two-thirds of the characters are dead at the end. Not even Les Miserables has that many empty chairs at empty tables.

Despite these misgivings, Thom Southerland’s production is totally, unerringly sensational – from the way the cast seem to build the ship at your feet in David Woodhead’s glorious thrust stage design, how neatly they double and treble the different classes of passengers and crew, how perfectly detailed are costume and props (although the first class dinner plates aren’t quite right) to how they collectively visualise the bulk of the liner while bringing Maury Yeston’s anthemic score to one of many, many fabulously sung climaxes. It’s all sustained by Mark Aspinall’s magnificent, string-rich orchestra which may, if you’re remotely sentimental about the legend of Titanic, bring a justifiable tear to your eye.

The combined vocal strength and accuracy of the impressive cast helps you gloss over the clichés in the lyrics, and the two-dimensional nature of so many characters: you may really struggle to differentiate all the shawl-wrapped ‘Oirish’ Kates in steerage and the bewhiskered gents up top, but there are some well-observed performances which have real quality: Philip Rham as the troubled Captain Smith, and Matthew Crowe as the sensitive geeky wirelessman Harold Bride – outstanding in his song with stoker James Austen-Barrett, although is Bride really flirting when he offers to send the telegram for free?

Greg Castiglioni is fine as naval architect Andrews, and the mutually accusatory song between him, Captain Smith and Jock Ismay (a splendidly unlikeable Simon Green) is masterfully done by all three.

Most of the first act is taken up developing characters with whom you’ll have sympathy when the iceberg hits – you could play ‘guess who drowns’ in the overlong first half – but it’s an opportunity for nice vignettes like Isidor and Ida Straus played by Dudley Rogers and Judith Street: their tender duet is charming. James Hume as the handsome First Class steward Etches pivots many of the scenes and makes his mark.  We’re sure quite a lot of the audience wanted to be knocked up in their stateroom by him in the morning.

Of course if they’d really sought to impress diehard Titanic enthusiasts with the production’s attention to detail, we could have referred them to Mr Siggins of North Derbyshire who built an entire Titanic cabin in his garden shed using wood panels reclaimed from her sister ships. Even Mrs Siggins thinks he’s bonkers.

Titanic continues at the relocated Southwark Playhouse, 77-85 Newington Causeway SE1, until 31 August. Tickets £22 / £18. Runs 2 hours 45 including interval. For more information and to book, see the Southwark Playhouse website.

JohnnyFox saw Titanic on review tickets from Kevin Wilson PR.

Image by Annabel Vere

Londonist Originally published on Londonist