MAWKISH is the word Treasured writer Ailís Ní Ríain uses when describing exactly what she does not want her theatrical telling of the Titanic story to be.
And mawkish it most certainly isn’t, successfully avoiding most of the clichés – both musical and narrative – that have a way of attaching themselves to tales of great tragedy.
Not easily pigeonholed, the work incorporates storytelling, aerial theatre, dramatic projections and music in following the liner’s story from construction to collision.
Set in one Liverpool location that could rival Titanic in terms of scale and splendour – the Anglican Cathedral – the show is described by its creators as a “journey”, which begins when you enter near the Lady Chapel and walk towards the great space.
On the way, you encounter a series of tableaux – a researcher poring over passenger logs, a woman frozen in front of a pair of children’s shoes, a man studying the newspaper headlines, head bowed.
A stage juts into the audience, upon which characters from history stand to share their tales – among them a young mother signed up as a waitress to make a fresh start in life, steerage class passengers and Fred Fleet, the Liverpool-born look-out forced to stand trial in New York with the horrors of the disaster still fresh in his mind.
It is history’s most infamous shipping disaster and, here in Liverpool at least, we don’t need to be taken through every detail. Instead, Ní Ríain peppers her outline narrative with surprising anecdotes, such as the (clairvoyant?) cat which fled the liner at Southampton and the disgruntled Liverpool shipbuilders angry Titanic was to be built in Belfast.
The script is fact-laden – Titanic is 882ft long, is stocked with 56,000 apples and carries 113 Swedish passengers – symbols of scale and ambition that, poignantly, became instantly insignificant the second she hit the iceberg.
The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s Brendan Ball performs the score – a lone trumpeter playing a discordant fanfare in a duet with the cathedral’s seven-second echo. Unexpected and disconcerting, it clashes with the optimism surrounding the ship’s launch to foreshadow its now well-known fate.
It’s a striking production that has much to recommend it – not least the chance to visit the cathedral at night – but it doesn’t make enough of its strengths. The projected segments and acted scenes mostly stand side-by-side as separate entities – it would benefit from more imagery and less spoken narrative.
The aerial theatre too was fleeting, although it left the most enduring image – a woman in a white dress which ballooned around her like a giant jellyfish as she drowned far above the audience’s heads.