The Last Ship

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Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

It’s rather fitting The Last Ship should wind up its UK tour in Salford: sure, they never built ships there, but the Lowry now stands on a site that up until 1972 was a working port. However soon like so many British industries the Salford/Manchester docks closed with 3000 people losing their jobs. So, it seems rather fitting then that for one last time (well on this tour at least), The Last Ship sets sail.

The story revolves around the return of local boy Gideon Fletcher, (Richard Fleeshman) who 17 years prior fled the town and joined the navy: he could see the writing was on the wall even back then for the shipyard and wanted to avoid the seemingly inevitable indoctrination into that way of life. However, on his return he now finds his town in potential ruin from the proposed closure of the ship yard. To make matter worse he receives a frosty reception from his old-flame Meg Dawson, (Frances McNamee) the girl he left behind. These two may be the focal point, but this is story with a bigger tale to tell: one of community, hope and defiance.

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The Last Ship is Sting’s love letter to a town he grew up in and a life he had once known. It fully acknowledges the pride and struggle that the people of Tyneside and other communities faced at the closure of not just the docks but coalmines and pits as well. Songs like “The Last Ship” the “Shipyard” swell with pride with the latter being a foot stamping statement of intent.

The cast are on fine form, Richard Fleeshman makes for engaging, charismatic lead, who at times doesn’t half sound like Sting when singing. Joe McGann and Penelope White as shipyard foreman Jackie White and his wife Peggy, make for a heart-warming, strong couple, who have each other’s and the rest of the communities backs at all times. The show is packed full of spirited and strong performances throughout that certainly do the source material full credit.

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The production design by 59 Productions is outstanding: one minute you’re in a dockyard the next a church complete with stain glass windows and eerie echo. Above we have the claustrophobic grey clouds, and magnificent tower cranes: the visuals take this production to another level, never ‘showy’ or flash, just simply stunning.

Anyone expecting an all singing, all dancing musical affair complete with ‘jazz-hands’ need look elsewhere, for this is production filled heart, soul and an unashamed political agenda. It calls out Margret Thatcher and the government of the day for the pain and suffering they caused so many at that time. The production highlights the mistakes of the past a warning to make sure these mistakes aren’t repeated in the future, especially regarding the NHS: It certainly has some something to say, and it says it loud and unashamedly proud.

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At the close of the production the cast took a well-earned standing ovation and gave us one last song: joined by Sting for an unannounced, unassuming blink and you’ll miss it cameo for the Last Ships final week of shows, judging by this performance lets hope there are plenty more voyages to come!

The Last Ship is at the Lowry until 7th July tickets available here.

Interview | Richard Fleeshman | The Last Ship

Having started his career at age 12 on the cobbles of Coronation Street, Richard Fleeshman has gone from strength to strength, moving into musical theatre and quickly establishing himself as one of the most in demand actors in the country.

Fleeshman’s latest role which brings him to the Lowry in July sees him perform in Sting’s self-penned musical, The Last Ship. Inspired by Sting’s own childhood as well as his 1991 album The Soul Cages, The Last Ship focuses on a community amidst the dying days of the shipbuilding industry in Tyne and Wear. Fleeshman takes on the role of Gideon, a sailor by trade who returns home 17 years after turning his back on his hometown to become a sailor. He returns to reconnect with a lost love, however tensions soon rise as the once proud town he left is in demise and life for the girl he loved has changed dramatically.

“It’s based in what was a real working shipyard, the Swan Hunter shipyard.” Richard Fleesham explains. “I play Gideon Fletcher who was expected to follow in his Father’s footsteps and go working in the yard but he decides that life is not for him, I suppose similar to Sting really, so he joins the navy and heads off to sea, returning 17 years later when he returns to find the place he left behind is very different to the one he has returned to.”

The Last Ship originally made its premiere in Chicago in 2014 ahead of opening on Broadway where it was nominated for two Tony Awards for Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations. Since Sting brought the show to the UK it’s had a new book from director Lorne Campbell as well as the addition of new songs. The focus too has shifted to concentrate much more on the political aspects of the story. “Audience responses have been amazing, I was confident that audiences would enjoy the show as the story is fantastic and the music is beautiful but it’s been lovely to see just how much it’s resonated with audiences. At its heart it’s a story about people, about people being repressed and how they respond to that. As a company we get a real rush of energy from the audience, it’s a very powerful story and it’s clearly affecting people and moving audiences which is fantastic to see from up on stage, we’ve had standing ovations every night so far which is just incredible.”

Fleeshman having starred in both the West End and Broadway productions of Ghost, the Musical, came close to taking a break from musical theatre before hearing about the opportunity to audition for the role, “I’d actually decided before taking this role that I needed a break from eight shows a week and then literally an hour after having that conversation with my agent she called me back and said ‘Look I know what you said about having a break from musical theatre but….Sting…’ as soon as I heard that I said, scrap everything I said!”

Fleeshman was incredibly nervous when he first auditioned for the role knowing Sting was going to be present but has nothing but praise for the award-winning musician. “It’s been so fantastic working with Sting, he is one of the most humble, gracious guys you could wish to meet then you add onto that his unbelievable talent and passion for this project, it really is unbelievable.”

While Fleeshman may not relate to events that have happened in Gideon’s life he certainly relates to the draw of family and a love for his hometown, “In terms of his pride at the end of the show in the town that made him I can fully relate to that, I still go back to Manchester every month, my family are there, my best friends are there, I feel proud of Manchester every single day.”

With Fleeshman deciding he needed a break from musical theatre we wondered what it was that was so special about The Last Ship which made him change his mind, “One of the things that drew me to this show was that it’s a play that has incredible music rather than a musical, there are long periods of time, sometimes 7-8 minute scenes with just dialogue, there’s no underscore, nothing just dialogue so from an acting point of view you get the best of both worlds. The freedom you’re granted when doing a straight play mixed in with the joy of having a full band and full ensemble singing, that’s one of the things I love the most about it.”

As the Last Ship is due to dock at The Lowry in July we asked what audiences can expect from the large scale production. “At its heart it’s a brilliant, gritty story about people, about pride and about resilience. Audience responses have been amazing, I was confident that audiences would enjoy the show as the story is fantastic and the music is beautiful but it’s been incredible to see just how much the audiences have related to and enjoyed the show, I absolutely can’t wait to bring the show to the Lowry, it will be really special.

The Last Ship opens at The Lowry on Tuesday 3rd July and runs until Saturday 7th July tickets available here.