“Titanic: The Last Hero and the Last Coward”, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Searchlight Theatre Company
Charlotte Chapel
23-26 August at 14.30. Duration 75mins.

**** Four-star review

20 August 2023
Jeremy Malies in Edinburgh


This begins cleverly not with the sinking but with the enquiry into the disaster which began four days later on 19th April 1912.

The audience are observers in New York which had been the first setting-off point for RMS Carpathia as she transported the survivors. White Star Line chairman J. Bruce Ismay (played by David Leeson) is being quizzed by William Alden Smith, a Republican senator from Michigan. Smith is played by Micheal Taylorson.

There is stagecraft in the presentation and discipline in the writing. Not once does author David Robinson make a lazy or obvious choice, and we are spared gratuitous drama such as rising waters. The hearing (prompt because Ismay wanted to leave without setting foot on US soil) is compelling.

Leeson establishes Ismay as a combative witness who will not even accept the rubric of Smith’s questions. He strikes us as patrician and unempathetic until Leeson starts to convey the man’s charisma. But as we cut back and forth from action on the ship to the enquiry, we are left in no doubt as to his fundamental morality. It’s incontestable that he took the last place on the last lifeboat so condemning everybody behind him including children to certain death. “I will live the rest of my life branded a coward” he reflects.

The acoustic at Charlotte Chapel could not be much worse for the spoken word; presumably it is better for group singing and when the upper tier is full. But no matter: the dialogue was still discernible and the acoustic suited Michael Taylor’s excellent sound effects with the whole building seeming to creak as we heard static parts of the ship become moving parts.

Taylorson impresses as he switches repeatedly from Senator Smith’s Midwest vowels and assertive body language to the Renfrewshire tones and neutral demeanour of Rev. John Harper who was onboard to preach at the Moody Church in Chicago.

Smith almost becomes a straight man as more and more good gags dismantle Ismay’s reserve and force him to integrate with us, the congregation, during the ship’s service. There is a running joke that Ismay’s secretary is being generous with his boss’s time. The play is class-conscious but never bludgeons us; we learn that Ismay has both a secretary and valet with him who would eat in their own saloon along with ladies’ maids.

The script underlines that Ismay and Harper have much in common. The writing can be lyrical when Ismay marvels at the natural world and looks forward to his favourite portside view of the Statue of Liberty. He may have seen it on this trip but not from the Titanic!

I was puzzled by what I think might be an error when Ismay clearly learns that Harper is a widower but then asks him again about his marital status. We enjoy a secular song, this being “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” which had been composed that very year. Encouraged by Smith, the audience made fitful attempts to sing it. I wonder if the words could have been projected since we were enthusiastic but simply didn’t know the whole song. I felt we had missed what might have been a big experience.

There is much effective humour as Harper persuades Ismay to read from both testaments and join the onboard worshippers in a hymn. Parallels between the readings and the fate of the passengers could be clunky in less skilful hands but here they bring out the poignant situation. Harper would spurn a place on a lifeboat and preached from the ship and even while he was in the water. He was 39 and pastor at Walworth Road Baptist Church in London.

Robinson’s script makes good use of freighted phrases such as “long term travelling plans”. I swallowed hard as Harper tells Ismay that their souls will not go down with the ship. The writing is equally powerful in the enquiry scenes as Ismay answers detailed questions about speeds and the number of lifeboats. The text suggests that Ismay’s ego was invested in the ship’s top speed. Surprisingly, very little is made of the Morse code messages that would prove crucial. They could have added to the sound.

As Ismay reflects on his meetings with Harper, his tone often resembles that of the narrators in Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller memory plays. I can hardly pay the author a higher compliment. My penultimate show at Fringe 2023 was an unexpected gem and I’m glad I chose it on a hunch.