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Paul Vallely: Sting’s lament for a lost north-east

28 September 2018

The Last Ship recalls an old way of being community, says Paul Vallely

Johnny Louis/SIPA USA/PA Images

YOU can see them best from the train. Spanking new warehouses or factories now sprinkle the rolling Northumbrian countryside between the Scottish border and Newcastle, with its regenerated riverside and trendy quayside bars. This was not what Sting had led us to expect.

Several months ago, I’d seen The Last Ship, a musical that the singer-songwriter had written about growing up in the shadow of the giant ships built in the Tyneside yard at the end of his street. His father and grandfather had worked there. His fate had been to do the same — until he escaped, through music. But it was not just a story of youthful rebellion: it was one of industrial, social, and psychological decline.

I’d not been impressed with the plot and characterisation of the musical. It presented a cavalcade of clichés about hard northerners with emotionally constipated lives: the gruff foreman, the angry trade unionist, the embittered drunk, the taciturn working-class philosopher, the abandoned woman, the loyal wife, and the rebellious child. But the music was haunting; so I checked the internet to find out more.

The Last Ship tells a story of failure and regret, before ending on a wild and unrealistic gesture of hope — not exactly Broadway feel-good, which is perhaps why it flopped in New York. Since then, the show has undergone several rewrites.

But the latest, by the director Lorne Campbell — which toured the UK over the summer — seems to have made it worse. Not only has it dropped the character of the visionary Roman Catholic priest who inspired the Tyneside community: it has also, in a genuflection to political correctness, replaced the story’s rebellious son with a fiery daughter.

Although he is now an agnostic, Sting, born Gordon Sumner, was schooled, confirmed, and married within the Catholic Church. In his sixties, he has returned to his roots. His new music is deeply shot through with Catholic imagery. But the Father and the Son does not quite work when the son has been turned into a daughter: it robs the drama of the device that one actor can play the protagonist in his youth, and then play his own son later in life.

But forget the story. The work is best seen as a song cycle (there is a fine version on YouTube). It has a touching, tender toughness which speaks of the north-east where he and I were born, in 1951. It is an amalgam of the musical heritage of that time and place. There are flickers of “Cushie Butterfield”: a 19th-century Geordie folksong. Northumbrian pipes and fiddle bring touches of the Celtic. There are echoes of folk ballad and sea shanties, but also touches of Kurt Weill, Jake Thackeray, classic jazz, and rock.

It all adds up to something authentically autobiographical — not just in terms of musical influence, but in something deeper. Its jaunty humour and its mournful melancholy are a lament for a way of life which, despite its hardships, embodied something profound about the fellowship, solidarity, vigour, and resilience of an old way of being community. The new warehouses and stylish riverfront bars seem a thin substitute for what has been lost.

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