REVIEW: MUSICAL The Last Ship The Playhouse.
Byline: LAURA DAVIS ECHO What's On Editor firstname.lastname@example.org @lcdavis
IT TAKES guts to return to the home town you couldn't wait to escape from - whether that's revisiting it as a piece of musical theatre or, as Gideon in The Last Ship, in the hope of rekindling a lost romance.
Sting has made no secret of his desperation to leave Wallsend, the North-East shipbuilding town where he grew up, yet he conjures up it and its people with a great deal of affection.
It's the 1980s, Thatcher is crushing the unions and the workers live each day under the shadow of potential lay-offs.
In Wallsend, a great ship sits nearly finished in the yard, while the men who "conjured her from where there used to be a hole" - to paraphrase one of the show's many memorable lyrics - are waiting to get back to work.
Faced with having to tear her apart for scrap on a fraction of their wages, they go out on strike.
And, when the Tories and the capitalist shipyard owner play an unfair hand, the men ultimately choose an impossible third way - a reckless but courageous act that proves that sometimes you have to fight, even if it's only for your dignity.
During this struggle, Gideon returns - 17 years after he left his girlfriend, Meg, behind on the promise that he would send for her.
Hardened by his betrayal, she is unsympathetic and reluctant to reveal they share a daughter.
Their reconciliation seems unlikely, but we are told from the outset that this is a story about stories, about events that may or may not have happened, so a happy ending is always on the cards.
Directed by Lorne Campbell, The Last Ship was not intended to be autobiographical, and yet you cannot fail to see hints of Sting's own story in Gideon's desire to flee - and later in his daughter's wish to move to London and become a pop singer.
And it's ever-present in the voice of Richard Fleeshman (Gideon) who sings about as Sting-like as you can get without venturing into the realms of a tribute act.
He is a charismatic lead, at his best when his character is struggling with memories of his upbringing - the difficult relationship he had with his father, whose boots he is not prepared to fill.
His voice is easily matched by Francis McNamee as Meg, the feisty but vulnerable woman he left behind.
Between her throaty vocals and unending passion, she was the star of a strong ensemble cast that also featured Liverpool's own Joe McGann in an affecting role as the kind but frustrated shipyard foreman. And, although he was not physically on stage - at least, not until he joined the cast for a surprise encore - Sting was ever-present.
In the poetic lyrics and powerful music, which moved between gutsy foot-stamping anthems, fiery Latin numbers and gentle love songs, played live from the orchestra pit by a band notable for a gorgeous violin performance from Sally Simpson.
Part love story, part working-class ballad, part call to arms, The Last Ship will resonate deeply with Liverpool audiences only too familiar with its themes. .....
Richard Fleeshman as Gideon, in The Last Ship Picture: PAMELA RAITH
The Last Ship - at The Playhouse until April 14 Picture: PAMELA RAITH