The tragic story of the ‘unsinkable’ RMS Titanic is legendary. There were just 706 survivors of the 2,240 passengers and crew when the ship sank after hitting an iceberg on 14th April, 1912. The United States Enquiry began five days later at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, New York City. Having survived the disaster, the chairman of the White Star Line, J. Bruce Ismay was the first to testify.
This courtroom scenario is the starting point as Senator Smith asks Ismay whether he suggested the Captain should increase speed, and if repeated telegram warnings of ice were ignored. Clearly intimidated at these accusations, Ismay categorically denies being involved in these decisions.
With the sound of ship’s hooter, the time shifts back to the departure of the Titanic on her maiden voyage. Ismay is trying to spot his wife and children in the cheering crowd on the pier, but is abruptly interrupted by a third class passenger, Rev. John Harper. With his gentle manner of persuasion, Ismay unwittingly agrees to read a lesson in the church service.
The spacious stage is furnished with leather suitcases and steamer trunks while their wing collars, ties and tweed overcoats perfectly capture the period fashion. With his neat moustache, David Leeson bears an uncanny likeness to Ismay, the clipped tone of his voice expressing a sense of upper class superiority. Michael Taylorson portrays the two contrasting roles of the Senator and the Minister with seamless ease, just a quick change of jacket and switching from an American to a soft, lilting Scottish accent.
This theatrical double act is very well portrayed as their rather strained, unlikely friendship develops, coloured by a charming touch of sardonic humour.
The Charlotte Chapel has a round ‘porthole’ stained glass window but the high ceiling and stone walls unfortunately offer very poor acoustics. With added sound effects and music, much of the dialogue is lost in an echoing fog of words.
Life on board the ship is ‘an endless buffet’ of breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, then a nightcap brandy on deck. Regular bible readings and hymn singing too - most appropriately a rousing rendition of ‘O hear us when we cry to Thee, For those in peril on the sea,’ but these scenes are so long and tedious, it’s like a rather monotonous church sermon.
The most thrilling moments are at the Enquiry as the Senator fires a volley of questions at Ismay like a Prosecution KC in a murder trial. Why were there just 20 lifeboats, sufficient for 50% of passengers and crew? When you entered the lifeboat, were there any passengers still on deck.? Ismay is almost speechless, stumbling, mumbling before trying to explain what happened that night.
Twenty minutes before the ship sank, the last coward steps into collapsible C lifeboat, while the last hero stays on board to comfort and care for his fellow passengers, as the band play the slow and mournful tune, ‘Nearer My God to Thee.’
For a play about the Titanic disaster, there is a serious lack of dramatic atmosphere. It fails to answer or explain the key questions asked at the Enquiry. It is well documented that Ismay reduced the number of lifeboats to avoid cluttering up the first class deck, and he had urged the captain to reach New York in record time.
The impressive flyer captures the iconic vision of that freezing April night; with this expectation in mind, after 45 minutes one may wonder, just when is the Titanic going to hit the iceberg?
7 – 25 August, 2023 @ Various times. Not 13, 17, 21, 22 August
Tickets: £12 (concession £10) (Family group, £7)