The Titanic Boys
Martin Lynch and JJ Gilmour's musical is marked by a 'joyous disregarding of pompous memorialisation'
The commemoration of 100 years since the sinking of the RMS Titanic, with the loss of 1,523 souls in the dark waters of the North Atlantic, has been quite the event in the theatrical landscape of Belfast.
Our shiny new Metropolitan Arts Centre was brought into the world with a stellar cast performing a rather cold interpretation of the official inquest into the sinking, written by Belfast playwright Owen McCafferty.
Kabosh Theatre Company, meanwhile, took over the Titanic Centre to perform the chilling, philosophical Titans, and later in the year the Land of Giants ingeniously raised the ship using the gift of electric ropes and five scissor lifts.
Into these swirling waters GBL Productions bring us The Titanic Boys, the latest large scale interpretation of the maritime events of the first two weeks of April 1912.
Written by Martin Lynch and JJ Gilmour, The Titanic Boys tells the story of the 'guarantee group', the selection of workers from the Harland and Wolff ship builders who travelled with the ship to ensure the smooth running of the maiden voyage.
GBL hope that The Titanic Boys will claim back the Ttitanic story for the city of Belfast, placing at its core the story of four working class apprentices who found themselves transported from the terraces of Belfast onto the great ship itself.
Happily for the writers, these four are a representative bunch. All Protestants, reflecting the employment practices of Harland and Wolff, they are imagined to have quite disparate characters.
Alfie Cunningham, played by Brian Markey, is the cocksure ladies man who can't make up his mind if he wants to run away to the New World or return home to his ‘true’ love. William Campbell, well drawn by Terrence Keeley, is the sweet and innocent young Christian lad all astray in a profane world.
Michael Lavery, meanwhile, plays Frank Parkes, a union man who worries greatly about not being able to attend meetings of the Independent Labour Party and hear the speeches of his hero, William Walker. And completing the quartet is Ennis Watson, the comedy engine of the piece, a shipyard poet (a nice nod to Thomas Carnduff and Sam Thompson), who is brought to life with confidence and style by Ciaran Nolan.
Around these four swirl the now familiar suspects: Bruce Ismay, Lord Pirrie and other middle management of the guarantee group such as Artie Frost, a worried foreman in the yard, Bob Knight, a Shankill Road hard man, and Roderick Chisolm, a Glaswegian convinced that there is ‘something not quite right about this boat’.
The group is led by the beatified Thomas Andrews, the modest king of the shipyard. Thomas Danan puts too much emphasis on the saint in Andrews however, and he comes across more like a kindergarten teacher than a Managing Director.
Women appear fleetingly, as wives or potential love interests. And the action begins a year before the sailing of the Titanic, through the sea trials and on to the tragic end that we all now know much about.
Alfie desperately tries to woo Emily, seemingly through the medium of borderline sexual assault. William grapples with the moral conundrums of 1912 life. Frank reminds us that some 'bastards' are making fortunes off the back of the working man, and Ennis reveals a profound love of Walt Whitman.
Once aboard the boat, they dream of New York, worry about those back home and attempt to heal sectarian divisions through music. No, really.
There's a manic fun about The Titanic Boys, a joyous disregarding of the pompous memorialisation of the Titanic that overtook so much of 2012's events. At its heart this is an enjoyable musical about four young men travelling towards new futures.
However, there are weaknesses. Some of the movement on stage looks a little stilted at times, many of the songs pass you by without sticking in the memory, and the moment that the iceberg strikes through to the watery end is rushed and underwhelming. It is only the strong and effecting singing of Kerri Quinn that saves the show from disappearing completely in its final minutes.
The key success in The Titanic Boys is the relationship between the four young men and their interplay with the rest of a strong cast. We feel for them, recognise them and want them to succeed. Ennis's lengthy deconstruction of the use of the word 'bollocks' is one of the highlights of the show, and it's these more traditional theatre elements that work best, not necessarily the musical aspect.
These conversations firmly place the piece in Belfast, linking the great ship's story with the city. In those terms the creators of The Titanic Boys have succeeded in their aim. This is not a perfect show, but a warmth and tenderness towards its characters make it a worthwhile addition to our portfolio of Titanic memory.
Many have attempted to draw great lessons from the 1912 disaster – delineating the death of the class system, the end of the industrial dominance of Belfast – while trying to express the tragedy in terms of facts, tonnage and numbered magnificence. The Titanic Boys reminds us that in the face of such disaster, often all we have are sentiment, camaraderie and humour.
The Titanic Boys runs at the Grand Opera House until August 25.