Original book by Roberto Trippini, current book and lyrics by Kaz Moloney, music by Kaz Moloney, David Moloney and William Godfree
Longitude Productions Ltd
Upstairs at the Gatehouse

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The Company Credit: Nicola Young Photography
Claire Russell as Mother and David Phipps-Davis as John Harrison Credit: Nicola Young Photography
Imogen Opie as Lizzie Harrison and Liam Bradbury as Adam Cox Credit: Nicola Young Photography
The Board of Longitude: Chris Agha as Sir Edmund Halley, Abigail Brodie as Lord Anson, Alex Lyne as Rev Nevil Maskelyne and Troy Yip as Delysle Credit: Nicola Young Photography
Samuel Chisnall as William Harrison, Troy Yip as Equerry, Abigail Brodie as King George III and Chris Agha as Equerry Credit: Nicola Young Photography
Imogen Opie as Lizzie Harrison and Samuel Chisnall as William Harrison Credit: Nicola Young Photography
Samuel Chisnall as William Harrison, Liam Bradbury as Adam Cox, Claire Russell as Mother, David Phipps-Davis as John Harrison and Imogen Opie as Lizzie Harrison Credit: Nicola Young Photography

In 1707, during the War of the Spanish Succession, a Royal Navy fleet returning from action in the Mediterranean misjudged its location and four ships were wrecked off the Isles of Scilly with a huge loss of life. It was a disaster, one of the worst in British naval history, that underlined the need to find a way to accurately calculate longitude. Carpenter and watchmaker John Harrison was to provide the answer.

Kaz Moloney’s play takes up the story in 1714 when, after being petitioned by merchants and seamen to seek a solution to the problem, Parliament established the Board of Longitude with prize money on offer graded according to accuracy from £10,000 (nearly £2 million in today’s money) rising to twice that if accurate within half a degree. By then, carpenter Harrison was already making clocks with mechanisms of wood, but it was not until 1730 that he began to compete for the Longitude prize.

It took another five years before he built a clock that the Board gave a sea trial. Two more versions followed before, in the 1750s, he turned his attention to watches. After another decade and a half, he had produced a watch that matched the criteria, but there were quibbles, and only in 1773, after the intervention of the King (who carried out his own tests), was his success acknowledged and Parliament gave Harrison, now 80, an award of £8,750—but never the full prize.

Latitude opens with radio shipping forecasts, a reminder of the continual perils faced at sea before they are dramatically drowned out by a dramatic musical evocation of a great storm. The cast in hooded blue capes swirl around the stage like the surging ocean.

John Harrison (David Phipps-Davis) and his wife (Claire Russell) have already lost their eldest son to the sea, and after natural dangers, we are reminded of the human threat of the press gang in a brief scene where their daughter Lizzie (Imogen Opie) launches an attack to prevent them abducting a young fish-seller from the local marketplace. He is Adam Cox (Liam Bradbury), the young man whom she will marry, and he will become Harrison’s assistant.

Lizzie’s belligerent intervention is followed by scenes that alternate between the domestic, with John’s wife complaining about the time he spends on developing his chronometers, and those which feature the commissioners of the Board. They tell the story in episodes that bridge four decades, but they lack dramatic action. Instead, they offer a stylised presentation that is at times very funny with the commissioners a comic chorus.

Though closely based on the known facts, the telling takes a few liberties: Nevil Maskelyne, for instance, did not join the Board of Longitude until he was made Astronomer Royal but here appears with them from their first appearance. He was Harrison’s greatest opponent, and Alex Lyne makes him an hilariously snooty, upper-class baddy. Abigail Brodie makes their Chairman Lord Anson equally toffee-nosed, but she has great fun as George III, who on the contrary supports Harrison, as does Chris Agha’s Sir Edmund Halley, despite being one of the toffs. Troy Yip, who plays Delysle, the final member of the commissioners chorus, briefly disappears from them to double as a comic succession of other inventors.

The Harrison family are, of course, all very likeable. His wife may carp a bit, but Claire Russell suggests the affection she has for her husband. John himself is too buried in his work to display much personality, though he gets a chance to give a glimpse of the man as he sings “I may be a dreamer but I solve problems too”. As his son William, Samuel Chisnall is dutifully supportive, but Imogen Opie makes his sister Lizzie a sprightly character with charisma—no wonder Liam Bradbury’s Adam falls for her.

Longitude is about timepieces, hard work and persistence rather than its actual characters; they don’t noticeably age or develop over 40 years—indeed, they still wear the same clothes, though they do get the chance to express themselves in some lively numbers, like a duet for Lizzie and Adam explaining calculating longitude, and I particularly liked one for all the family as they compose a letter to George III and the King’s joyful “Tickety Boo”.

These may not be songs that you will whistle on the way home, but with their multiple rhyming and tick tock underscoring, they offer variety.

Although simply staged against black drapes with blue-grey rostra, the musical transitions between scenes seem designed to accommodate something more spectacular, but Amanda Noar’s production relies on the actors and well-sung songs and concentrates on delivering its information.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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