Joe McGann talks to Frankly My Dear UK about his role in Sting’s new musical THE LAST SHIP

After a receiving widespread critical acclaim and five-star reviews at its official opening in Newcastle’s Northern Stage, Sting’s new musical THE LAST SHIP finally heads to Salford’s The Lowry this week for the final leg of its UK and Ireland Tour.

Inspired by his 1991 album THE SOUL CAGES and Sting’s own childhood experiences, THE LAST SHIP tells the story a community facing the demise of the shipbuilding industry. Returning home after 17 years at sea, Gideon Fletcher arrives back to Wallsend as the local shipyard is closing. As the community tries to deal with the political fallout, Gideon attempts to win back his childhood sweetheart Meg Dawson, the young and heartbroken girlfriend he left behind all those years ago.

The musical features a brilliant ensemble cast including Joe McGann, who took time out of his busy touring schedule to chat to Donna Kelly of Frankly My Dear UK during its run at Liverpool Playhouse, a theatre which holds a special place in McGann’s heart.

“This theatre is where I very first saw a play for passing my 11 plus” explains McGann.

“The moment I saw it, I said to the family friend who brought me, “I want to do that”. A week later, I joined a youth theatre so it is this theatre that we’re sitting in that is responsible for me doing what I do”

That theatre experience was the start of a 35-year long career for McGann. Best known for his lead role as Charlie Burrows in the comedy series THE UPPER HAND, McGann has had a wide career spanning theatre, television and film.

Joe McGann as Jackie White and Charlie Hardwick as Peggy White in THE LAST SHIP

Joe McGann as Jackie White and Charlie Hardwick as Peggy White in THE LAST SHIP © Pamela Raith

In his latest role in THE LAST SHIP, McGann plays foreman Jackie White, the part originally played by Jimmy Nail on Broadway. Nail was originally set to play the role on UK tour but withdrew from the role before the start of the touring production, resulting in the part being offered to McGann.

“I went down to London and auditioned for Billy Thompson” explains McGann.

“I didn’t know about the part [Jackie White], I thought I was going to play Billy Thompson and then on Monday they said, OK full disclosure, we want you to play Jackie”

“Both of them are great parts, I’d had bitten their hand off for either, to be honest. It’s a lovely part and it’s given me a chance to kind of pay my own debts in a way because I am basing the character on people that I knew, partly on my Dad and partly on my Uncle Jim who was a shop steward. Dignified, working class, self-taught men.”

Despite his extensive stage experience, McGann admits his audition for the role was a surreal experience. Whilst performing as Walter Hobbs in ELF THE MUSICAL, Sting visited him during his run at Salford’s The Lowry, to offer him the role.

“He [Sting] flew in from Dublin, got some tickets and saw the last 25 minutes of ELF at the back of the theatre. He comes down to my dressing room and everyone is going past, peering in. The producer also came in, a guy I know called Iain Gillie, who had a guitar on his back. We had a chat and Sting said, “Shall we do the song then?” and reaches for the guitar. I thought, ‘Oh my God, Sting is about to play one of his songs and I’m going to sing it’. I said, “If you don’t mind me saying this, this is a little bit surreal” and the producer says to me, “What you mean you don’t get international rock stars coming into your dressing room every night?” and I laughed. Sting said “What are you talking about? I’ve just seen Springsteen outside with Peter Gabriel” and he was laughing. He was charm itself, we did the song and he said to me “See you in rehearsals.”

The Last Ship

McGann admits one of the things that appealed to him about THE LAST SHIP was the sense of community and the way in which the working-class men and women of Wallsend, where the story is set, are portrayed.

“There is an authenticity about it” explains McGann.

“Sting, by his own confession, said that he realised he owed his community, so rather than just be a vanity project, I think he’s set out to balance things and to pay a debt in a way. I’m very sensitive about the way the working class are portrayed, especially the Northern working class. It’s so often bloody flat caps and whippets isn’t it and I get really pissed off. This is authentic. These are brilliant, dignified, clever people and there is a great joy and a great satisfaction in being involved in that”.

“I knew the audiences here [in Liverpool] would get it. In fact anywhere that has lost a manufacturing, mining or steelworks will identify with it. Anywhere that saw the ideological fight that just rolled over where people just became collateral damage. I hate that phrase, it’s one of the most vicious phrases in the English language, but it’s what happened. People just got rolled over. It will prick the memory, which is not so long ago.”

The production also sees McGann reunite with Charlie Hardwick, who plays his wife Peggy, as the pair fight to hold their community together in the face of the gathering storm.

“It’s such a joy to work with Charlie. We worked together back in South Yorkshire in the Sheffield Crucible in the 1980s and we are very similar in our politics and our approach. We wanted this to be about real working class people and we wanted it to be a real working class marriage, a marriage of equals because that’s what they were. That’s what I knew. That’s what we’ve managed to portray and it’s a joy. I don’t know of many other plays with marriages like that in it. To me, it’s authentic.”

THE LAST SHIP runs at Salford’s The Lowry from 3 – 7 July 2018.