Thom Southerland’s revival of Maury Yeston’s 1997 Broadway musical at Southwark Playhouse proves a “tingling, involving theatrical experience”

You know how it ends. Chocks away, bottoms up. But this 1997 musical about the sinking of the Titanic, which I saw on Broadway just before James Cameron’s movie was released and saved the sinking of the indifferently reviewed stage show, is surprisingly buoyant.

The book by the late Peter Stone, and the music and lyrics by Maury Yeston – composer of Nine and Grand Hotel; both stage versions of films that ran fascinatingly parallel to their inspirations – are well worth the detour in this remote new venue by the Elephant and Castle. They pack a literate sense of danger and premonition in an early 20th century project that symbolised so much and cost so dear.

And although there are problems of audibility early on, the grotesque, tinny-edged sound system that distorted the Playhouse’s productions of Parade and Mack and Mabel in the former venue has been largely sorted, though there’s still a sense of playing “too big” for the space.

The last half hour is slightly tortuous and never-ending. But that’s all I’m going to complain about – oh, apart from the too-camp teenage bell-boy and the rather unnecessary tilting of bits of the set to suggest what we already know is happening; we’re going down, folks.

Otherwise, David Woodhead‘s clever design for this European premiere makes the whole spacious Southwark room a ship, with beaten metal silver panels, a split level poop and a crow’s nest that serves as a mobile staircase and, at one point, wittily reverses the impact of Kate Winslet in the cinematic wind machine.

Richard Jones’s Broadway production (designed by Stewart Laing) created a classy, hierarchical hell-hole, like a stratified department store on water. Thom Southerland‘s direction makes all the same overlapping class system points with more finesse: the stoker is seen rabble-rousing while the table is laid for the captain’s dinner; and the ensemble becomes a tragic emblem of humanity in crisis.

Greg Castiglioni as Thomas Andrews
Greg Castiglioni as Thomas Andrews
© Annabel Vere

All the love stories – below decks, in the “second class” section, with Celia Graham‘s notable Alice determined to gate-crash the top table – are pointedly differentiated, and there’s a late-flowering romance among the oldies, too, as Dudley Rogers and Judith Street renew their vows, as it were, in waltz-time as the water rises.

The ship of dreams is a floating city, an engineering marvel, a means of escape, a conduit of hopes and possibilities. The captain (Philip Rahm) is contemplating retirement, the owner (Simon Green) is demanding ever more speed, in blind indifference to the consequences, and the builder (Greg Castiglioni) is advising caution.

It all makes for a tingling, involving theatrical experience, a musical meditation on our obsession with progress and improvement, even though some impressive anthems and chorales fail to make up for a distinct lack of take-home melody.

There’s much craft, and much heart, and some beautiful touches of making sense of a journey into the unknown that started out as an experimental adventure for all concerned. And that’s what the show so metaphorically, and brilliantly, encapsulates.

Titanic continues at Southwark Playhouse until 31 August 2013