Frances Winston interviews Frances McNamee, the female lead of Sting’s musical, The Last Ship, which will run in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, from 4th to 9th June.
When a bona fide rock-superstar announces that they are dipping their foot in the world of musical theatre, the assumption is usually that they will be producing a ‘jukebox musical’, featuring their back-catalogue. After all, shows like We Will Rock You and Mama Mia have proven huge successes for the people behind them.
However, Sting has never been your average rock-star – always just that little bit more earnest and socially-aware than most. So it wasn’t really a surprise when his musical ambitions extended to creating a brand new show, based on the story of the shipyard industry in the area he grew up in – Wallsend in Northumbria. The shipyards loomed large, and were the main source of employment. Hence, The Last Ship is set in a Tyneside town, where life unfolds beneath the looming towers of the shipyards.
With musicals a notoriously difficult genre for writers to crack, the female lead of The Last Ship, Frances McNamee, who plays Meg Dawson, does feel that the association with Sting has given this show a real boost.
“It’s strange, but I think that before this show a lot of people thought I was just doing this for fun,” she laughs. “Like I’ve been at it 10 years, but some people I know didn’t really take it seriously. And suddenly you’re working with Sting, and they all sit up and say ‘oh, you’re doing it properly now’ as if I wasn’t beforehand. But the association definitely has more people flocking to the theatre. Absolutely it has.”
It seems that this show was always in her future. Sometime prior to being cast, she heard that they were organising a workshop with Northern Stage, and she expressed interest in attending. Unfortunately, she couldn’t make it, as she was appearing in another show at the time. She admits she thought that it had passed her by at this point. However, her agent contacted her about the role some time later, and between that call and performing for Sting with her now co-star, Richard Fleeshman, there was a mere week. The rest, as they say, is history.
“It was all very quick. I mean there are no rules really. You can go to a casting and wait months to hear anything or it can be a quick turnaround like this one.”
The show endured a shaky start, following a launch and subsequent closure on Broadway, but Frances feels this version (there is a new book and significant changes have been made) brings it back to its roots, and is allowing the show to develop organically.
“I don’t know much about what happened with Broadway, and I’ve never seen that version. But I think sometimes people can have reservations about music or style. I think people in America might not have got it at the time.
“But now bringing it to Newcastle, which is like it’s spiritual home, with a new book and Rob Mathes has done amazing orchestration, I think it’s finally where it should have started. And we’re touring places that will get it. With anything like this you need to let it find its feet. They eventually got Billy Elliot in America, and I think they’ll eventually get this.”
Frances graduated from the famous E15 theatre school and has worked steadily since graduating, but often in classical roles. So she admits that this show is a breath of fresh air, saying:
“I’m not quite in modern dress – it’s set in the 80s and the fashions then weren’t the most flattering. I mean the costumes are definitely comfortable compared to corsets and period dress, but they’re not the most glamorous either”, she laughs.
Unglamorous costume aside, Frances is loving working on the show.
“I’m really excited about this show,” she exclaims. “I’m happy to sit tight with it and see what happens. I mean obviously I’d love to do some television or film in the future at some point. But for now this is where I want to be”.
“I think it finds a nice balance. You’ve got your 42nd Streets where they are tap-dancing every few minutes, and then you have things like Les Mis which is dark. But although this deals with a period of struggle, there is enough uplifting stuff in it that you won’t feel downcast leaving. It’s found that happy medium, and I can’t wait for audiences in Dublin to see it, because I think they’ll love it.”
The Last Ship runs in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, June 4-9, with tickets from €21 available from www.ticketmaster.ie