Banbridge Musical Society Stage Titanic Serenade

Banbridge Musical Society adapt Stewart Love's short play as a musical, featuring popular songs from the era

30 years ago, long before James Cameron’s cinematic paean to the stricken liner and the slew of theatre pieces that surfaced for the centenary of its sinking in 2012, Belfast author Stewart Love wrote Titanic, a short play originally intended for a schools’ audience.

Its success encouraged him to expand it for the Bart Players, one of Belfast’s leading amateur dramatic companies, and Love remembers their award-winning production at the Group Theatre playing to full houses.

Three decades later, the play is being resurrected, though not in a way that Love himself would ever have anticipated. Titanic Serenade is the work’s new title – ‘serenade’ because this new version of the original script re-casts it as a musical.

The man responsible for the re-casting is Leonard Anderson of Banbridge Musical Society, who explains the process leading up to Titanic Serenade’s UK and Irish premiere at the Iveagh Movie Studios on Tuesday, May 13, where it runs until the following Saturday.

‘I did the play a couple of times in schools, and it worked very well,’ he recalls. ‘Then I worked with Banbridge Musical Society and threw it into the mix as something that maybe could happen. The play had a great story, could it be re-done as a musical? So we contacted Stewart Love and he was really enthusiastic about the project.’

The idea of telling the Titanic story as a musical is not a new one. Maury Yeston’s Tony award-winning Broadway show, Titanic, of 1997 comes to mind immediately. So too, more locally, does Martin Lynch’s The Titanic Boys, which played to enthusiastic audiences at the Grand Opera House during 2012’s centenary celebrations.

The new Love-Anderson version, however, differs from either of its predecessors in using almost exclusively music from the Titanic’s own period, chosen by Anderson himself, and Colin Loughead, musical director for the Banbridge production.

‘In the original play there are certain songs anyway,’ says Anderson. ‘For example there was 'Abide With Me', and obviously the standard 'Nearer my God to Thee' at the end. So we had to go and find music of the era and discover what was popular at the time.’

Tunes such as 'Alexander’s Ragtime Band', 'By the Light of the Silvery Moon', 'Our Queen Up The River', 'Gortnamona' and 'Shall We Gather at The River' have, accordingly, found their way into the production.

So too have a couple of new numbers, penned by Anderson and Loughead: 'A Fine Ring' for the character of J Bruce Ismay, Titanic’s owner, and 'Virtually Unsinkable' for Thomas Andrews, the ship’s designer. Loughead has written new arrangements for all the songs, featuring accordion, violin, drums, cello and piano.

Bucking a growing trend for the abandonment of real musicians playing the score on the evening – the National Theatre’s smash hit War Horse has recently resorted to using a pre-recorded soundtrack – Banbridge Music Society promises live accompaniment. ‘Of course we have a band,’ Anderson comments dryly. ‘We don’t do tracks.’

With 31 named parts to fill, many requiring acting skills as well as singing, casting the new show has been a far from straightforward process, especially for an amateur company. Anderson is, however, clearly delighted by the talented team that he has ended up with, and the unwavering commitment they have shown in getting Titanic Serenade ready for its first performance.

‘Coming up to showtime, cast rehearsals are on Monday and Wednesday evenings, and Sundays. This, of course, is [the cast's] hobby, but it’s a strange hobby where you have to work so hard. These people have to sing, dance and act, as well as do their day jobs, make the children’s tea, and do all the bits and pieces.’

Anderson has no doubt where the motivation comes from, what makes the Banbridge players voluntarily relinquish the temptations of a cosy evening in front of the television, in favour of draughty, unprepossessing rehearsal spaces.

‘You have to understand,’ he smiles, ‘there’s nothing like the thrill of a live audience, when you’re in a theatre and the band strike up, the curtain goes back, and you start. And the audience will also feel that frisson, the adrenaline rush. It’s not like film, where you can have 45 takes. Once the curtain goes up, you have to get from A to Z without making a mess of it.’

There is also, with Titanic Serenade, what Anderson terms ‘the excitement of building something from scratch’, the added motivation created by knowing that no other company has staged their new production before – anywhere, ever.

‘You can take a show like Hello, Dolly! or Oklahoma! and it’s tried and tested, and well known. Titanic Serenade, by contrast, is a totally unknown quantity. But the quality of the writing, I have to say, is brilliant. Stewart has done a fabulous job in his adaptation.’

Fresh from a Sunday run-through at which the playwright and his wife were present, Anderson is bubbling with energy and positivity as curtain-up for the opening night approaches. ‘We’ve just had one of our best rehearsals ever,’ he enthuses. ‘The singing was great, they seem to have found their characters.’

He cites ‘the opulence of the era’ and ‘the extreme loss of life’ as two key explanations for the enduring fascination of the Titanic story, and the need to re-tell it to successive generations of people.

‘We’ve obviously been doing our research for the new show,’ Anderson comments. ‘And the more you read about Titanic, the more interesting it becomes. The old clichés ring true. You laugh a bit, you cry a bit, and Titanic Serenade incorporates both those reactions.’

Tradition and continuity also play a key part in creating the type of team solidarity you need in amateur companies, when rehearsal schedules get particularly fraught and flustered. In that respect the Banbridge Musical Society has plenty of history to fall back on.

‘This will be their 71st year,’ Anderson explains. ‘They’re used to having large numbers of people. For the pantos they would have over 70, more when you add the kids and teenagers. But to my knowledge this is the society’s first world premiere. There’s a special buzz doing something different.’

Titanic Serenade runs at the Iveagh Movie Studios, Banbridge from May 13 – 17.