With just over two weeks until Titanic The Musical docks at Birmingham Hippodrome, find out what happened when Diane Parkes went behind-the-scenes of the stirring and spectacular new stage production to meet some of the local stars of the show.
When Claire Machin was 12 years old she made her theatrical debut – in the musical Annie at the Birmingham Hippodrome. Those performances convinced her that acting was her future – and 35 years later, 47-year-old Claire is returning to the Hippodrome in the tour of Titanic the Musical.
“It was 1983 and I was 12 and I auditioned for Annie. It was the first UK tour after the London performance and they were auditioning for some orphans,” she recalls. “My mum and dad took me to an open call and there were hundreds and hundreds of kids.
“You had to be under a certain height. They had something like a Mickey Mouse and you had to fit under his ears – it was a bit like getting on a rollercoaster!”
Claire, who grew up in Stoke-on-Trent, gained the part of July which she played for around six weeks at the Hippodrome – a theatre where she has performed many times during her career.
“Every time I go back to the Hippodrome I have a real fondness for that theatre,” she says. “I only have to open the stage door and the smell takes me back to being that 12-year-old girl with my little Annie canvas bag. It’s always an excited feeling when I come back to the Hippodrome.”
As a youngster, Claire watched amateur dramatics at the Queens Theatre in Burslem.
“I would sit in the balcony at the side. Just hearing the orchestra tuning up and the hustle and bustle – I just loved it. There was a local actress and the first time I saw her was in Mack and Mabel and I was in love with her and the idea of being her! I never wanted to do anything but acting.”
Titanic the Musical comes to Birmingham Hippodrome on June 4-9 as part of the show’s first UK tour. A vastly reworked version of the 1997 Broadway musical, this production was premiered at London’s Southwark Playhouse in 2013, played Toronto in Canada and Tokyo and Osaka in Japan and was staged at Charing Cross Theatre in London in 2016.
This tour is the first time Claire has been in the production which sees all of the actors playing a variety of different roles.
“What is so special about Titanic the Musical is that it’s not a show about a ship – it’s about the people on that ship,” she says. “It’s very relatable when you think about things like 9/11 and Grenfell Tower.
“We rush about in our busy lives but this will be a moment when the audience sits for two hours and is hopefully enthralled in these people’s lives. There is somebody there on stage who everyone can relate to – audience members will see characters and think ‘that’s me’.
“I think the audience will really feel something for those characters in that tragic situation. It’s good to be reminded of the human story and the human cost to life.”
Claire’s key character is Alice Beane, a second class passenger.
“It’s really easy to make Alice seem aspirational and a Hyacinth Bucket type character and I feel I owe it to Alice to ensure there is more to her than that,” she says.
“I love Alice – she is so excited to be getting on this ship which is a wonder of the new world and she’s determined to get into the first class lounge and make friends. Being American it was OK to want more and she speaks for a world which was changing.”
Simon Green, who plays J Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, the company which launched the Titanic, also first discovered theatre locally. Born in Solihull and a student at Cedarhurst and Solihull Schools, it was the Royal Shakespeare Company which inspired his love of acting.
“We lived in Baddesley Clinton and because we were close to Stratford-upon-Avon my parents took me to see Shakespeare’s As You Like It when I was about eight,” he recalls. “Dorothy Tutin was playing Rosalind and I watched and went ‘that’s what I want to do’.
“I hardly knew what it was and had hardly been to the theatre but I just knew. I did my O-levels and went to Stratford College which had a ground-breaking drama course with A-levels and then went to London and trained.”
Since then, 60-year-old Simon has built a successful career in theatre taking roles in a range of works from Phantom of the Opera to The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and winning a New York Drama Desk Award for his show Life is for Living.
He played the role of Ismay in the Southwark production and again in Toronto and takes on Ismay’s mantle again for the tour.
“Ismay is a really good part and the show is an extraordinary piece of work,” Simon says. “It’s a perfect piece of theatre. The response from the audience on the first performance was astonishing really – I don’t think we’d really realised what we’d got until then. It’s very powerful.
“With Ismay, Titanic was his pride and joy and he went on the maiden voyage and I suppose most famously he is the man who pushed it to go faster and faster because they wanted it to be the fastest ocean liner in the world.
“And he got on the life boat and came back and was vilified for it and called a coward. But after he came back he was the man who led the vanguard in changing all the rules in maritime travel and making it safer. So out of the tragedy came some good.
“Ismay is not the villain. He didn’t set out to kill anybody but it was through his ambition, need and desire that this terrible thing happened. There is no single element which made the tragedy of the Titanic happen.”
However Simon’s Ismay sometimes does sometimes spark an interesting response from audience members.
“When we did the show in Toronto, after the performances, we would walk past the exit to the car park and people who had just seen the show would wind down their windows and boo me – but I like to think they booed me with love!”
For Emma Harrold, being a student at the University of Birmingham between 2008-2011 aided her career path to the stage.
Emma, who is from St Albans, studied classics at the university and spent a good deal of her time performing in student productions.
“I had danced since I was three and had been in dance competitions on stage since I was six,” she says. “I loved doing it and at the age of 16 I had started doing lots of am dram.
“I was torn between going to drama school or university and I decided I was a bit too young to go to drama school so decided to go a really big university which I knew had extra-curricular drama and quite famous alumni.
“Then at the freshers’ fair I immediately went to the musical theatre stand and said ‘I want to be in your next production’. We did Hot Mikado which was great. Over that time I got to play some great parts in some great plays.
“Being in Birmingham I went to all of the theatres, the Rep, the Alexandra, the Hippodrome, and saw all of these productions coming through and it all secured in my mind that I wanted to be an actor. So when I graduated I had a gap year and then did a post-graduate diploma in musical theatre at the Royal Academy of Music.”
Since then, 27-year-old Emma has been in a number of productions, including Happy Days at the Hippodrome four years ago – and she was keen to be involved in Titanic the Musical.
“As soon as Titanic came up I had my eye on it,” she says. “I watched the film of Titanic when it first came out and I remember it being really traumatic. I actually said I would never watch it again it was so sad – so maybe I was drawn to this production to exorcise some demons!
“I’m a newbie to the cast and the first weeks of rehearsals, rehearsing with people who have done this show maybe one, two or even three times before, I’ve been so excited to see how passionate they are about the project.
“I knew it was a great musical before I auditioned but it’s also understanding that we are in quite a unique position telling this wonderful and tragic story. We are recreating people who are not unlike us but lived 100 years ago and thought they were embarking on the most exciting period of their life – and obviously some made it and some poor souls didn’t. There is something thrilling about bringing this to life.”
Emma plays the role of Kate Mullins, a third class passenger on the ship.
“She’s Irish, from Donegal, and she makes her way to the Titanic to start a new life in America. Her dream is to become a sewing girl. She meets two other girls, also called Kate, also Irish, on the boarding of the Titanic and they start this very exciting journey together.”
And Emma has come to feel a real empathy for Kate.
“When people think about the story of the Titanic they think about a really fantastic ship which crashed into an iceberg and sank. But I think as we have gone through the rehearsals we’ve been seeing the people as an interactive living museum in which we are paying homage to them.”