The Last Ship: from slip jigs to the slipway, a folky’s voyage into commercial touring theatre – by Sally Simpson

This time last year I was asked if I’d be interested in being the fiddle player in the on-stage band for The Last Ship, a touring musical with songs written by Sting. The Last Ship tells the story of a shipbuilding community in Wallsend, Newcastle, and the impact of the impending closure of the shipyards. The central love story follows Gideon, a sailor newly returned from many years at sea, who is less than warmly welcomed back by feisty childhood sweetheart and pub landlady Meg, as he gets to know his (SURPRISE!) daughter. It looks at a community led by a hardy yet caring foreman and his indomitable wife, struggling to know what to do when their reason for being there is taken away. To quote the show ‘it’s what we do – we build ships’. Musically, it’s Sting crossed with English folk (thanks to Kathryn and Peter Tickell’s involvement in prior developments of the show), all beautifully orchestrated by Rob Mathes – a name you won’t know but should. Folk music in theatre has been an interest of mine since living in Sweden, where there’s a lot of crossover between the two, so this was pretty much the most attractive job offer that could possibly have dropped into my inbox on a cold January day. I say cold, I was using the folk-musician’s work-shy winter to wave farewell to my savings and was backpacking in New Zealand…

My first feeling in the face of a wonderful opportunity is panic. Sad, I know. But my head immediately filled with all the what ifs. What if I couldn’t dep out my regular teaching (two days a week)? Would it be worth losing it for? What if they picked someone else? What if my folky fingerwork wasn’t good enough for playing MT (musical theatre) scores and they sent me home packing after the first call? Not least, what would my bandmates back in Glasgow say, and could I get out of prior commitments? It’s a pretty big deal for an up and coming band who’re trying to make a name for themselves if one band member ups sticks and ditches you for a four-month tour. So at 5am NZ time I phoned my parents, because no matter how old you are, Mum has the answer. The answer turned out to be that I was being ridiculous and it’d all be fine. Always worth checking…

So, teaching depped out (many thanks due), bandmates spoken to (thank you HEISK, Westward the Light) and prior commitments sorted, I packed my giant yellow suitcase and dragged it through the dregs of the Beast from the East to head to Newcastle for a couple of days’ rehearsal, a week of previews and then four weeks of shows, followed by three months touring the UK. And beyond that, I was diving headlong into the unknown. It struck me as I sat on the train south that the only time I’d headed into a situation I had less idea about was moving to Sweden on exchange. I knew almost nobody, had no idea about the music, and didn’t quite know how I’d ended up there. At least this time round I spoke the language. Well, ish. What immediately ensued was a crazy few days of rehearsals and the only time I’ve ever seen an entire pile of sheetmusic thrown in the air – satisfyingly dramatic. And then before we knew it, it was preview time.

A bit of background on the production; it featured a six-piece band comprising of keys (also our Lord and Master, the wonderful Richard John MD), drums, double bass, guitar, melodeon and fiddle. I felt like I’d won a competition to be in this situation, but as well as being fantastic musicians my bandmates were also as kind and good humoured as I could possibly have hoped for- and God knows they would need that for four months in my company! The music itself couldn’t have been much more of a joy to play. Folky enough that I wasn’t fighting back the grace-notes and could tap my foot freely, technically demanding enough that I could really get my teeth into it and challenge myself. So, as much as imposter syndrome had set in, it was being kept at bay. The band were on-stage for the production, intermittently visible behind moving gauzes forming the backdrop to the set. We were occasionally in the pit when stages in other venues were too small for us, and the lowest moment was hit when we found ourselves in a sort of curtain-based tent opposite the quick change area backstage in a heatwave. Toasty. Visually the show was stunning, with the ever changing industrial backdrop and shifting interior sets created by projections by 59 Productions, known for their work on the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony. I’ve only ever seen it from behind the gauze it was projected onto, but even then it was incredible- check out the production shots here! There was a (brilliant) cast of around 18, whom I wish I had the word count to introduce individually, some of whom doubled up as instrumentalists for a few numbers. Then there’s the crew on top of that – a hefty number of folk all in all!

(Post curtain-call singalong with The Gaffer in Newcastle. Credit: Pamela Raith)

Thus followed four brilliant weeks of shows in Newcastle, opening night excitement, a few (…) visits to Lady Grey’s on Shakespeare St, more cheesy chips than I care to admit to, a green room birthday picnic, and many lovely stairway jam sessions. Sting (The Gaffer) was around for much of our Newcastle run (and would join us roughly once a week throughout the tour), and it was clear how much the show means to him. It’s hugely personal. He’d sit at the edge of the band listening throughout the night, and after joining the cast for the curtain call he’d immediately come back and make changes/ suggestions to the scores. It was a privilege to watch him and Rob Mathes at work, total musical greats.

Green room picnic, complete with stuffed faces
Celebrating one of our first performances

I remember the high of getting through our first public performance – there were numbers the band had never rehearsed and it was proper squeaky bum time (for me in any case). The audiences in Newcastle couldn’t have been more supportive. The show gets quite political, dealing with a story that whilst fictional, is based on stories that are true for many people in shipyard towns – or indeed anywhere where the industry has moved out and left a gaping vacuum where people used to have purpose and identified themselves by their work. Seeing men who’d never been to the theatre before bawling their eyes out at the show was so moving and affirming. Even after four months, I ended each show with goosebumps and often tears in my eyes. This is a story that matters to people, and seems to motivate change and compassion. Our director, Lorne Campbell of Northern Stage, said that he’d never had so many letters about one production, including from audience members saying they’d been motivated to go out and do good in their communities on leaving, giving to food banks and the likes. I know that making music makes a difference to lives, but it can be hard to feel you’re making a tangible difference at times. It was great to be part of a creative endeavour in which you can see that change or effect immediately.

On the final night of our sold-out run in Newcastle, we were playing through the pre-show music with the actors casually moseying onto stage and having a bit of interaction with the audience when my E string snapped. I smugly patted myself on the back for ensuring I knew where I was putting my spares when I’d packed my dressing room bag. Off I went, to find I had a G, D and an A. No E. The show was now late starting, the auditorium was packed and it was the first time in a couple of weeks that Sting had been in to see it, and he and Trudie were with high-profile friends in the audience. Panic set in. The (long-suffering) Company Manager calmly said we needed to start, I gabbled something about having put out a call for help on Facebook, thrust my phone at him and went to start the show with 3 strings. I managed to muddle through the opening numbers switching octaves or using positions to get round the missing string, but the seventh number in the show involved a lot of high position work and would be impossible to deliver convincingly with three quarters of an instrument. I could’ve kissed the stage manager as he crept onstage half an hour into the show with a violin, but he’s probably very glad I didn’t. Whilst I sat on-stage playing in a state of panic, the folkies of Newcastle had been on the case via Facebook, and I shall be eternally grateful for the many many offers I got, and to Freya Rae who jumped straight in her car and dropped a fiddle at stage door for me. Nobody could believe it’d worked out. Here’s to the Folk community, Freya, and Facebook! Incidentally, Sting promised he’d buy me a spare fiddle that evening which never materialised, must follow that up…

Chill time backstage with Minnie

It’s funny how quickly you get into a sort of routine. In my everyday life there’s very little routine, as much as I try to enforce some. I teach two days a week and the rest of my time is spread between bits of freelance work – bands, gigging, ceilidhs, whatever comes my way. And whilst it’s a lovely jumble of things and the idea of a 9-5 style routine scares me, there was something I loved about getting into this theatre based routine. The show goes up at the same time each night, a few matinees a week, there’s the cast warmup, half hour call, quarter call, five minutes and then beginners, and then you play the same content as the day before, although it often ends up more eventful than intended, and everyone on stage tries to keep it fresh. In-between times you sleep in, try (and fail) to stay on top of other work and friendships ‘back home’, buy spare strings, do meal prep, buy more spare strings, hang out with the cast baby (that’s right, two of our company brought their 6-month old bundle of absolute joy on tour- BEST. HUMAN.EVER.), work out (or watch Netflix) or try (and again, fail) to win the love of little miss Minnie, our smallest company member at around 20cm tall. She’s a mini dachshund, who despite our dreaming never made it into the show, but followed her actor-human around devotedly when he was off-stage. So, with all this routine, it felt funny to be upping sticks and moving on to our next venue. Newcastle had spoilt us. However, this is the sort of routine that you can take with you on tour. The constants in your life stop being about home, or seeing friends or family, they’re more about the friendships you forge within the company, and your day is scheduled round the constant of the show. You learn to make yourself at home in a new theatre pretty quickly. With the exception of a theatre mid-tour where the band were in the pit and a mouse ran from under the MDs platform towards the end of the show. I did the rest of the show nervously anticipating the snap of one of the many mousetraps…

We toured on a weekly basis, doing 8 shows a week Monday to Saturday. Sunday is your day off, but it’s not really, because it’s travel day. We docked at Newcastle, Liverpool, Birmingham, Northampton, Leeds, Nottingham, Cardiff, Dublin, Edinburgh, Glasgow, York and Salford. As organising our own accommodation was our responsibility, Theatre Digs Booker became my best friend. It’s a sort of Air BnB for theatre workers, and the variety of people who’ve decided to open their homes to us flakey creatives is really interesting. I lucked out with my bookings and stayed in a wide variety of lovely homes with great hosts. Examples include an Archdeacon and his wife in their big manse, a young couple and their greyhound Zelda who welcomed me into their terraced house in Cardiff bay, and a flat in Leeds that seemed to have been untouched since the 1970s. Other cast members weren’t so lucky, but everyone loves a good digs horror story. Another bonus of touring is that it offers you the chance to see all those friends whose birthday drinks or visits home you miss, and you can catch up with the family you only see at Christmas. Barely a week went by that I wasn’t touched by the effort friends and family went to to visit me or the show in a city near them, go for lunch, bring care packages, open their home to me or bring a crowd to see the show. It’s a privilege to be able to see family and friends due to work, especially when that work so often prevents you making it to major events too. As with most touring, or even more generally life in the arts, when it’s good it’s really good and the bonuses are brilliant (experiential not monetary!), but you have to make the most of them as the troughs can be as low as the peaks are high.

Toasting the show with specially made The Last Ship beer

It was tough adjusting to new audiences after the brilliantly enthusiastic reception we’d had in Newcastle and Liverpool. Whilst I believe the show is pertinent everywhere, it’s not as personal further afield, and doesn’t have the jazz hands and sequins some people might expect from a musical – there’s a lot more to MT than clichés. It’s very very human. Audiences were still great, but we’d learnt to feed off our crowds up north, and I think for me in any case, it’d become part of how I validated what I was doing. Some venues were known for having audiences who would be pretty quiet and you’d never in a million years get a standing ovation – you’d want to check them for a pulse but they’d be singing the show’s praises on the way out regardless.

It’s hard to know what to say about the whole experience (‘Can’t be that hard Sally’, I hear you say, ‘you’ve droned on about it for 1903 words and counting, and your friends haven’t been able to shut you up for months’. Fair point.). Commercial touring theatre is such a different world from folk clubs, ceilidhs and festivals, and I’m not sure that this show was necessarily representative of it anyway. I’m told it’s rare for a company to be as close as we were, or to feel as passionate about the show as we did. Maybe every company says that. Ask another shipmate and they’d probably give you a very different account of it all. But I don’t know. I know I was partly blinded by my naïve excitement at being part of it all, but I definitely feel like it was something special. Our voyage ended back in July, but The Last Ship is setting sail for Toronto very shortly, with a Canadian band and quite a few cast changes. I’m glad it’s got plenty of wind in its sails, and I’m excited to see where it goes from there, albeit sad to be waving it off from the shoreline.

It’s clichéd I know, but I’ll end with a list of things I think I learnt from the show, before this blog entry becomes as long as the tour itself.

  • So many of us have imposter syndrome. It’s probably what keeps you working to be better, but if you listen to it enough to believe that you really are unworthy of what you’re doing it’ll paralyse you.
  • When you’re seeing the same people every day, especially if they’re people who didn’t know you a month ago, it’s important to make time for yourself amidst all the excitement and chaos, and to check in with friends and family back home. If you define yourself by the people you’re around it’s difficult when the contract ends and you’re not quite sure what your constants are any more. But then, it’s hard to know how to define yourself if not by the people you spend time with and the work you do, especially when you’re not home. Oops, I’ve gone philosophical.
  • The kindness of strangers can be a beautiful thing
  • Theatre really can do justice to complicated social issues and bring people together
  • Some audiences are quiet. Doesn’t mean they hate you.
  • Ups and downs are par for the course.
  • Befriend the crew. Lighting, wardrobe, sound, stage management. They work hard, they make you look/sound good, or more importantly, keep you safe, and they don’t get to take a bow.
  • Always ALWAYS carry a spare E string.

So here’s to all the cast, band and crew of The Last Ship 2018, and to those making the onward voyage to North America. Fair winds and following seas.

Ellen (surprise daughter)’s band playing All This Time. Credit: Pamela Raith

Sally Simpson