It’s not every day there’s a queue outside Leith Dockers Club, On a crisp December afternoon last year, however, there’s a whiff of excitement among the gathered throng. Inside, the main bar is awash with afternoon drinkers indifferent to what’s going on elsewhere in terms of the celebrity in the house, preferring to play dominoes instead. The main function room, however, is packed out, with every row of seats filled by people eager to see a performance by a very special guest.
That guest is Sting, the artist formerly known as Gordon Sumner, but whose original name has been all but forgotten now after more than forty years as a high profile musician still probably best remembered for his stint fronting The Police. Following the band’s days of chart-bound global success playing jaunty punky-reggae hits such as Roxanne, Message in a Bottle and Don’t Stand So Close to Me, Sting’s early solo back catalogue saw him experiment with glossy 1980s jazz, an album of Kurt Weill songs and latterly Elizabethan-inspired lute music.
As an actor, Sting made early appearances in Franc Roddam’s film of Quadrophenia and Chris Petit’s existential road movie, Radio On. He appeared in the film version of Dennis Potter’s controversial TV play, Brimstone and Treacle, and scored a hit from the soundtrack with a cover of Spread a Little Happiness, taken from 1920s musical Mr Cinders. He also appeared in David Lynch’s film version of Frank Herbert’s science-fiction epic, Dune.
More recently, Sting showed up in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and has appeared as himself in shows ranging from The Vicar of Dibley to Life’s Too Short. And now here he is in Leith Docker’s Club on a chilly December afternoon, walking unassumingly down the aisle before stepping onto what is possibly the smallest stage he’s been on for four decades.
“What time’s the bingo on?” asks Sting as he straps on an acoustic guitar.
“Are you calling the numbers?” shouts some wag from the middle row.
“It’s been a lot of years since I’ve been in a social club,” he says in a gentle Geordie voice. “But I did serve my apprenticeship in places like Leith Dockers.”
Sting is here to launch The Last Ship, the musical play he’s written about the shipyards he grew up beside in Wallsend in Tyne and Wear. The show focuses on Gideon Fletcher, a Wallsend native who grows up in the shadow of the shipyard, but wants something different. When he returns after being away for fourteen years, the shipyard is in decline, and he recognises that something must be done to build a future for the community he left behind. Given that Sting too saw a life beyond Wallsend, The Last Ship is both a labour of love and something of a prodigal’s return for him.
“It’s a story very close to my heart,” he says in a side-room of Leith Docker’s Club after playing a handful of songs from the show. “I lived within spitting distance of the shipyard, and as a kid that’s where I thought I’d end up, but I wanted something different from that.”
Sting remembers seeing a Rolls Royce with the Queen Mother inside, who was visiting the shipyard.”
“The show isn’t autobiographical exactly,” he says, “but there are elements in there.”
While both a love story and a tale of family tensions as much as an elegy to the shipyards, Sting was influenced as well by reading about events during the 1980 strike in the Gdansk shipyard in Poland led by Lech Walesa, which led to the setting up of the trade union, Solidarity. Closer to home, the iconic Clydeside work-in fronted by the late Jimmy Reid was also an influence.
After opening on home turf at the Newcastle-based Northern Stage theatre, The Last Ship sails into Edinburgh tonight as part of a UK tour that also visits Glasgow next week. This is something of a second life for The Last Ship, which in its original form appeared in Chicago and on Broadway in 2014, and drew material from an album released by Sting in 2013. The roots of the piece actually date all the way back to Sting’s 1991 album, The Soul Cages, which focused on the shipyards and the death of his parents. There is an element of this before Sting performs a song from The Last Ship called Dead Man’s Boots, when he becomes emotional while talking about his father.
“Dad visited me,” he says.
This first UK production of The Last Ship features a new book by Northern Stage artistic director Lorne Campbell, the Edinburgh-born former associate director of the city’s Traverse Theatre. Design for the show comes from internationally renowned multi-media auteurs 59 Productions. The company’s state-of-art work was last seen in Edinburgh lighting up the landscape during the Hogmanay programme as well as assorted large-scale opening events for Edinburgh International Festival.
At Leith Dockers, former Auf Wiedersehn, Pet actor Jimmy Nail, who appeared in The Last Ship on Broadway, was supposed to show face, but never appeared. At that point Nail was scheduled to do the UK tour, but was shortly replaced by Joe McGann. As the eldest of the Liverpool-born McGann brothers – all well-known actors – he too will bring his experience of living in a once thriving port to the show.
As a fanfare for the common man and woman, The Last Ship’s themes chime with the likes of Billy Elliot and Brassed Off. As films, these are probably the most high-profile celebrations of working-class communities rising above their attempted decimation at the hands of 1980s Thatcherism. With both adapted for the stage to considerable success, musical theatre might well be regarded as Thatcher’s accidental legacy.
In the songs too, judging by the few played live in Leith Dockers, there are unconscious shades there of the sort of socially aware work produced by former Animals keyboardist and fellow Tynesider Alan Price during the 1970s. While Sting stamps his personality on his original compositions, there’s recognition that they need to serve the play’s narrative. The result, according to the show’s producer Karl Sydow earlier, is “some of the most beautiful music ever written for theatre.”
Following his performance, a member of the audience and ship-building veteran presented Sting with a book, Voices of Leith Dockers. It is the sort of stories contained with the book that fire The Last Ship.
“What I want,” Sting says, “is to look at what happens when our work disappears, and our community disappears, and to celebrate the importance of that community through trying to keep it going. It’s our work that gives us dignity, and once that has gone, what is there left? The Last Ship is all about community.”
Back in the bar, the afternoon drinkers are getting stuck into the leftover buffet. A couple of guys get selfies with Sting when he comes out of the side room. Sting is happy to pose awhile before he leaves, and Leith Dockers Club goes back to normal, sailing into late afternoon as Sting prepares to move on to the next port of call.
The Last Ship, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, tonight-June 16; Theatre Royal, Glasgow, June 18-23.
The Herald, June 12th 2018