Iceberg Right Ahead

Chris Burgess
Upstairs at the Gatehouse

The lookouts: Frederick Fleet (Matthew Walker) and Reginald Lee (Steven George)
Berthe Mayne (Nathalie Pownall) and Quigg Baxter (Jamie Partridge)
Molly Brown (Rosalind Blessed) & Quigg Baxter (Jamie Partridge)
Violet Jessop (Amy Joyce Hastings), Bruce Ismay (Julien Ball), Quartermaster Hichens (Liam Mulvey) and Ettie Dean (Katharine Owen)

Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee were the lookout men high above the decks of SS Titanic on that fateful night in 1912 who for some reason failed to sight the iceberg until too late to avoid it. They are the double-act around which this play revolves. Ovation producer and director John Plews co-wrote a short two-hander about them for the Edinburgh Festival but he never staged it and instead commissioned Chris Burgess to write this play around them and a number of real life passengers and crew.

This is not a docudrama, although it is based on fact and uses extracts from the commission of enquiry into the disaster in one scene, but a work of the imagination that adds fictional invention that, if Burgess and Plews had taken things just a little further could have turned this into rip-roaring farce as well as a tale of thievery and female exploitation.

In Matthew Walker's lookout Fleet—unscrupulously seeking to line his pockets, describes himself as like Robin Hood, taking from the rich to give to the poor (himself)—and Steven George as his devoted but stupid side-kick Lee, we have a delightful double act. When you meet their meths-drinking quartermaster (Liam Mulvey) and see the rich that they are exploiting, Fleet's exploitation of gullible First Class cabin maid Violet (Amy Joyce Hastings) is seen to be no worse than theirs.

The Titanic tragedy is a microcosm of class distinction and the irresponsibility of venal management and at times this script offers a moral message as clear cut as Oscar Wilde in his social satires and, like him, wraps much of it in humour, though without the epigrams.

Jamie Partridge gives caddish Quigg Baxter sufficient charm to see why he gets away with his treatment of women. Nathalie Pownall as the attractive girl he has got on board without his mother's knowledge has an initial naivety that's soon dispelled when she encounters him lying to a haughty mother (Katherine Owen). They meet when Mrs Baxter is taking tea with the ship's owner, Bruce Ismay (Julien Ball), and gatecrasher plain-speaking, no-nonsense Margaret Brown with her enlightened views on class. Molly Brown (yes, she's the unsinkable one in the musical) is big in every way; she may be a loudmouth but the she talks sense and Rosalind Blessed makes her warmly charismatic.

After the interval, the situation and the play become more serious as the characters take to the boats and the tragedy plays out, Katharine Owen now playing a woman from Third Class. John Plews's production manages the change of mood without flattening the strong character playing. And its very simple staging has a powerful effect.

Between scenes, the hardworking cast do sterling work making simple but effective changes to James Lewis's sets as the audience is distracted by announcements of the ship's progress, weather reports and statistics that flash across as news before the identify, time and place of the next scene.

Burgess and Plews, who first devised it, have peopled their play with characters whose parallel personal stories hold the interest irrespective of being on the Titanic, though the audience can hardly dismiss it. When the supposedly unsinkable ship hits the iceberg, the seriousness behind the humour becomes more poignant.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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