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Review: The Last Ship (Northern Stage)

Sting's musical about Tyneside arrives in Newcastle ahead of a UK tour

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Last Ship, set on Tyneside and full of songs by Sting, first took to the stage in 2014 in Chicago. When it moved on to Broadway, it garnered two Tony nominations, but, despite Sting himself taking over one of the parts, achieved only a modest run. What went wrong? Maybe it was the wrong audience – the average New Yorker has, at best, a passing interest in labour problems in the Wallsend shipyards – and maybe it was the book.

The current mammoth tour, starting at Newcastle's Northern Stage, attempts to rectify both. The first is no problem: The Last Ship has a triumphant homecoming and will, no doubt, stir an appreciative response throughout its UK tour. The second is a partial success: the new book by Lorne Campbell works pretty well, but clichés that are moving in anthemic song fall a bit flat in dialogue. Cannily, Campbell gives all members of his 16-strong ensemble an individual character (or two), but a few remain undeveloped. In a couple of cases this results in performances that would have been more at home in a conventional musical comedy.

The plot, however, is cleverly handled. All the dancing before the start, to the sound of the melodeon, tells us we're in for a feel-good musical, but how can you feel good about the disappearance of the shipbuilding industry in Wallsend? The spirit of the workers and the inspirational speech at the end (delivered by the superb Katie Moore) help, but so does the interlocking of two plots. The shipyard is closing, leaving the last ship incomplete, and we follow the problems of Jackie White, the highly respected foreman. As these are playing out, Gideon Fletcher returns, 17 years after deserting his girlfriend Meg Dawson, and there lies the promise of a positive ending, especially in the youthful energy and slightly wayward intelligence of her daughter Ellen (Moore again, excellent again).

Sting's songs cover a huge range. There are, perhaps, rather too many not dissimilar ballads, but he draws skilfully on folk music, music hall, dance and (once) a sort of post-punk country. Wisely, the story is often carried by the songs with minimal dialogue. Rob Mathes' orchestrations employ a much smaller band than in New York and Richard John's versatile little group delivers the goods.

Director Campbell's cast impresses vocally (the chorus numbers pack a tremendous punch) and, if acting is more uneven, the principals establish character strongly, without over-statement. Joe McGann and Charlie Hardwick are wonderfully matter-of-fact as the Whites – and both sing very powerfully. Richard Fleeshman and Frances McNamee spar and squabble and try to understand each other (often in song) most convincingly. Other outstanding performances come from Jim Caffrey's Marxist firebrand Billy Thompson and Charlie Richmond's bookworm Adrian Sanderson.

59 Productions' designs are superlative, they intensify the drama and make us believe even when the action is less involving. The great width of the stage is filled with girders, gantries and iron staircases. Behind these, cranes lurch into movement against a troubled sky or the ship appears in magical perspective. Projections – at times constantly changing – gives us everything from a television news report to a stained glass window.

The Last Ship runs at Northern Stage until 7 April and then tours the UK.