Sting wrote the story, music and lyrics – starring Joe MacGann, Charlie Hardwick, Richard Fleeshman
Speaking during rehearsals for the show, which opens in Newcastle on March 12, he says: “We haven’t even had our first night and I’m already burning with pride at what the cast and crew have done. I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed doing anything so much.”
The Last Ship is based on Sting’s experiences of growing up in Wallsend, an area once dominated by the Swan Hunter shipyard.
“The biggest ships ever constructed on planet Earth were built at the end of my street,” he told the BBC last week.
“It was an amazing, surreal industrial environment to grow up in; the dimensions of the place were very theatrical, so one day I thought maybe I should write a play about my home town, my community.”
The musical was premiered in the USA in 2014, where it was nominated for a clutch of awards, but it is now coming back to its North-East roots for its UK premiere, then touring the country.
Joe McGann plays the pivotal role of Jackie White, the foreman of a shipyard that is closing, who – with his wife Peggy – brings the community together to finish building one last ship.
“Jackie has to balance his life; he’s the conduit between his men and the shipyard managers. It’s a balancing act for him, and he’s looking for alternative ways to keep his men and community together when the shipyard is closing,” Joe explains.
“I see people like my father in Jackie; self-taught, intelligent men who find a goodness in hard work and trying to find a human way around problems like these, rather than just deal with facts and figures. Jackie’s marriage to Peggy is like marriages I’ve known, too, an equal partnership where they work together.”
Peggy is played by Charlie Hardwick – Val Pollard in Emmerdale – and Joe says: “I last worked with her at the Sheffield Crucible in 1984 and, due to the vagaries of this business, we haven’t been in the same room since. But now, it’s like we’ve never been apart. In The Last Ship, you see the changes in the shipyard and community through Jackie and Peggy’s eyes and that’s the way the audience understands what’s going on.”
Ex-Coronation Street actor Richard Fleeshman also appears as Gideon Fletcher, a sailor returning home after 17 years at sea to a family and a town that are falling apart.
Joe is full of praise for his co-star: “What a great voice – and he plays piano and guitar like a dream! In fact, I’m going to have to kill him…” he laughs.
And then there’s the small matter of working with the show’s composer, lyricist and international megastar Sting, who actually started his professional career at Newcastle’s Northern Stage in 1974 playing bass in a production of Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
“It’s been wonderful to work in the same room with a writer of his stature, as he’s got such good ears,” says Joe.
“He and our musical director Rob Mathes sit together at the table in rehearsals and work closely with everyone on the floor and work closely with us – they’re making it bespoke for the cast. You know Sting wants to make the show the best he can; he’s hugely committed to it and it’s not a vanity project.”
McGann is hugely committed to The Last Ship, too. A vastly experienced musical theatre actor, growing up in the port city of Liverpool means he feels a strong connection with the Tyneside shipyard communities: “The show has a huge resonance with me. I’m from a family of Irish immigrants who are mostly self-taught and who improved themselves to get out of the ghettoes. My mum’s dad worked in the docks, so that feeling is in my DNA.
“The Last Ship is about real people’s relationships and the relationships between them, their work and their community. That might sound a bit dry but you should bring your tissues and be prepared to laugh and cry. It’s a very human production and there will be a lot that audiences will understand about the way Britain and the manufacturing industry has changed.
Joe Mcgann and Sting at a rehearsal
“And change is about what you do with it. It’s about the way you handle it. It can be a positive force for good and I hope people will come away feeling inspired to do positive things in their own lives.
“Tyneside shipbuilding might sound like a strange theme for a musical but then again so was West Side Story, so was London Road, the show at the National Theatre about the murder of women in Norwich, and so was Fiddler On The Roof.”
Ah yes, Fiddler On The Roof, the classic musical in which Joe appeared as patriarch Tevye back in 2008. He’s returning to a paterfamilias role with The Last Ship.
How does 59-year-old Joe (still as dishy as ever) feel about taking on these roles with a little snow on the roof? “I’ve had these roles thrust on me but it’s not how I see myself,” he says.
“In my head, I’m still in my mid-20s and I’m shocked that it happened.
“Now I’m playing fathers but I remember playing young rock ’n’ roll leads. But I can’t complain. I’ve been in this business a long time now, and I credit the young man I was for knowing it was a job that would suit him.”
The Last Ship is at Newcastle’s Northern Stage from March 12-April 7, then touring the UK until July 7: thelastshipmusical.co.uk