TitanicDance, Waterfront Hall | Review

Waterfront Hall, Belfast 
Reviewed on Thursday 9th August 2018 by Damien Murray

Having originally premiered in Belfast four years ago, before going on to tour in America and China, this successful Irish dance and music spectacular has come home again and is temporarily berthed at Belfast's Waterfront Hall. 

Being staged about a quarter of a mile from where the infamous liner was built, there was always going to be something special about this run of the show, which – with a cast of world-class dancers and musicians – told the story of the fateful voyage of the Titanic using an illustrated projected narrative as the dance ensemble vividly brought the story to life. 

Probably because the story is so well-known, opting for not having an audible narrator actually worked here. 

As hundreds of people perished in 1912 when the ship went to its watery grave in the North Atlantic, I am always very cynical about any form of ‘celebration’ of the Titanic tragedy – be it a museum, a Hollywood film, a stage musical or, as it is here, through the medium of Irish dance. 

However, this production was directed by Sean McAnaney, Ray Sweeney and Kevin Toland with such sensitivity, reverence and respect that I don’t believe anyone could be offended in any way by it.  

Opening with a mournful, haunting and atmospheric lament on the uilleann pipes against the sound of water, before facts and images about the world-famous ship were projected onto the large central screen behind a symbolically gigantic porthole in the set, this retelling of the Titanic story in dance and music was successful on many levels. 

Indeed, artistic symbolism was always a core part of this production throughout and Rory Harkins’ versatile lighting plot added greatly to the production’s success as did KSR Productions’ practical and symbolic set (reflecting the tall metal sides of the ship with numerous portholes) and authentic period costume designs. 

Although the musical score may have lacked the impact of some of the bigger numbers in a show like Riverdance (sad to say, there will always be comparisons), it went in a different direction by using some well-known songs like The Water Is Wide (performed against a warm and stunning sunset) and I Know My Love; all beautifully performed with a natural warmth by solo singer, Orla Mullan

Under the musical direction of Darragh Healy, the four multi-talented and multi-instrumental on-stage musicians – Pauric O’Meara, Karl Doherty, Oisin McCann and Healy himself – often adopted a vibrant Irish style and, at times, a ‘session-like’ format to their performances, which worked well with this piece. 

Depicting elements of this emotional journey as a major dance drama was a great challenge for choreographers, Louise Hayden and James Keegan, but – using a varied selection of hard and soft-soled jigs and reels and other styles – they managed to capture the changing moods of the story. 

Indeed, the dancing and music combined in the early scenes to perfectly capture the undoubted sense of joyous hope and excitement behind the smiling faces of the ship’s passengers and crew as the high energy ensemble dances often displayed the sheer exuberance of those on board. 

The raw physicality of the male boiler room crew with shovels during their fiery hard-shoe routine in front of the hot engines contrasted so well with the gentle and dainty dancing of the first-class ladies with parasols on the bright sunny deck. 

While the genial and more formal dancing in ballroom was nice, it was quickly followed by an example of the always present class distinction that existed on this fateful voyage as a tap-filled dance battle ensued between the lower and upper classes. 

The more joyous first half of the show and the high spirits of the dancing passengers were cut short during the Act 1 finale when all lost balance and fell to the ground at the tragic moment of impact with the iceberg, giving way to a more sombre Act 2 where the mood dramatically changed to one of distress and ultimate tragedy. 

Staged with such sensitivity, the scene set in a ghostly underwater world was both poignant and appropriate as it showed the universality of the hymn, Nearer My God To Thee, which was so beautifully merged with the equally apt song, The Parting Glass. 

This touching scene was an undoubted highlight as it chillingly displayed the hierarchy of survivors that existed with 42% of first-class passengers being saved as opposed to 25% of third-class travellers. 

In the aftermath of such a tragic event, the sheer joy of reunion was great for some lucky ones, including the principal boy and girl dancers, Gerard Byrne and Ruth McKenna, who – as in the film – represented the love interest of the piece, with the added appeal of a first-class girl meeting a third-class boy. 

While McKenna‘s flame-haired locks flowed in some flirtatious routines and Byrne‘s hard shoe steps always hit the mark in terms of dancing ability, I did feel that the two young lovers could have developed a more romantic chemistry in terms of drama as, artistically, their relationship also represented the lovingly close bond that many others on the ship had. 

Another small observation would be that, for added realism and impact, the inclusion of a few child dancers would have been welcome to reflect that there were families on board. 

Despite being as hard-kicking as previous Irish dance shows, the confrontational elements and militaristic movements were not so pronounced here (even in the rebellious fight of frustration for survival between the lower class and the ship’s higher ranking officers), which gave this piece a more entertaining appeal. 

Although a piece such as this can have little humour, the courting couple’s first kiss and the bodhrán player’s solo, complete with traditional out of time clapping from non-musical members of the audience, provided nice moments of light relief. 

Overall, the combination of established songs, Irish music and dance, exhilarating performances and a well-known story plus the mixing of emotions with elements of hope, romance, joy and tragedy gave this show a universal appeal of ‘Titanic’ proportions. 

TitanicDance runs at Waterfront Hall until August 19th

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