The Titanic Boys

GBL Productions presents 'The Titanic Boys' by Martin Lynch. Photo: Elaine Hill

GBL Productions presents 'The Titanic Boys' by Martin Lynch. Photo: Elaine Hill

GBL Productions presents 'The Titanic Boys' by Martin Lynch. Photo: Elaine Hill

GBL Productions presents 'The Titanic Boys' by Martin Lynch. Photo: Elaine Hill

And still they come: in this centenary year of the great, perished liner, a slew of Titanocentric artworks continues to be launched from the creative slipways of its native city. This latest offering focuses on the little-known story of “The Guarantee Group”, a team of nine Harland and Wolff men headed by chief designer Thomas Andrews, comprising senior tradesmen from the yard and the best apprentices from its four main workshops (fitters, joiners, plumbers, electricians). All nine sail on the Titanic, tasked with monitoring the smooth operation of the majestic vessel on its maiden voyage. All nine die when the ship hits an iceberg, stranded somewhere in the entrails of the vessel, probably still attempting to keep the engineering systems going for the benefit of other passengers.

Martin Lynch’s script adopts a spanking pace in telling the Titanic Boys' story, whipping through a brisk selection of early scenes contextualising the emergence of the Titanic project, laying sharp lines of division between the well-heeled coterie of financiers and ship-owners, and the muscle-fodder labourers who actually do the building. This entails a certain sketchiness of approach, characters inked in outline, with a cut-out quality unhelpfully trivialising the complexity of the decisions they make as businessmen and workers, and simplifying their motivations as human beings.

Lynch’s piece is, however, deliberately broad-brush in its intentions: The Titanic Boys is a show, an entertainment, not an intellectual exercise in historical investigation. That’s probably why he has incorporated songs into the action, about a dozen of them, by JJ Gilmour, who previously collaborated with Lynch on Dancing Shoes – The George Best Story. Disappointingly these Titanic songs add little to the action, missing the opportunity to engage in any meaningful way with musical idioms of the Titanic period. With the exception of 'I won’t cry', the curtain-number, they’re generally anodyne, chugging along in an innocuous soft-rock groove which is far from memorable. A pity.

There is some rousing music, though, in Act Two’s steerage scenes, where an uilleann piper jousts with an Orange fluter among the Belfast apprentices, in an impromptu ceilidh violently interrupted by the brutishly sectarian Bob Knight, head fitter and resident hardman of The Guarantee Group. It’s a crushing moment, roundly booed by the Belfast audience in a pantomime-style reaction. The Belfast shipyard was, of course, an overwhelmingly Protestant environment, full of bigotry and rampant kick-the-Popery. Is it OK to laugh at these things now? The Titanic Boys regularly does so, and it occasionally feels discomfiting and a touch complacent.

Photo: Elaine HillAt the show’s heart are two excellent performances: Brian Markey as the irrepressibly libidinal young fitter Alfie Cunningham, and Ciaran Nolan as Ennis Watson, apprentice electrician, budding poet, and quoter of Walt Whitman. Both act with real verve and alacrity, creating a warm bond with the audience which helps to heighten the emotional gut-wrench experienced at the evening’s cataclysmic dénouement. There’s solid teamwork from the other cast members, Chris Corrigan’s trepidatious draughtsman Roderick Chisholm, and Kerri Quinn’s spikily flirtatious Emily (object of Alfie’s amorous attentions) emerging with particular vividness from the limited stage-time available to create their characters.

Alan Farquharson’s set glowers impressively, a phalanx of steel-grey gantries framed stage-front by wooden crates and packing-cases, with a raised gangplank and hulking superstructure leading to an elevated walkway for promenading. It doubles convincingly as both al fresco shipyard setting and Titanic interior, and is atmospherically lit by Sinéad McKenna, with telling use of spotlights at the show’s conclusion. A word, too, for James Kennedy’s sound effects, ominously cavernous when ice strikes, fraught with frightening wave-gushes and wailing when the final deluge happens. The scope for sonic melodrama is dangerously wide here, and Kennedy mercifully avoids it.

In the end it’s Martin Lynch’s vast experience as a playwright which ensures the undoubted impact The Titanic Boys makes dramatically. The show is deftly storyboarded, developing real momentum in Act Two particularly, and Lynch skilfully fashions an ending which is genuinely moving, while eschewing sentimentality. It’s possible to feel that there’s a mite too much toilet humour in places – that’s shipyard banter for you, I guess – but some of it is based on sloppy linguistic anachronisms, and I could definitely do without Ennis’ extended disquisition on the semantic niceties of the word “bollocks”, and the numerous scatological references relished by Frank the plumber, whom Lynch endues with a serious shit fixation.

None of which appeared to bother the majority of the first-night Belfast audience, who cheered The Titanic Boys to the rafters. For its bracingly engaging telling of an important, previously unheralded story, its classy stagecraft and robust dramaturgical values, the show deserved it.

Terry Blain

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Titanic Boys by Martin Lynch, music and lyrics by JJ Gilmour

8 - 25 August, 2012

Produced by GBL Productions
In Grand Opera House, Belfast

Co-directed by Martin Lynch and Patrick J O’Reilly

Musical Director: Mark Dougherty

Set Design: Alan Farquharson

Lighting Design: Sinead McKenna

Costume Design: Diana Ennis

Sound Design: James Kennedy

With: Brian Markey, Ciaran Nolan, Michael Lavery, Terrance Keeley, Nick Danan, Paddy Jenkins, James Doran, Richard Clements, Chris Corrigan, Kerri Quinn, Karen Hawthorne