Directed by Lorne Campbell, and with music and lyrics by Sting, The Last Ship is a personal and political story about the shipbuilding industry in Wallsend, and its passionate, tight-knit community. It tells the tale of Gideon Fletcher, who returns home a er spending half his life at sea to discover chaos in the community and the local shipyard on the brink of closure. e leading role is to be taken on by a familiar face from our screens – Richard Fleeshman, who played Craig Harris in Coronation Street for four years.
Frances McNamee, from the small village of Murton, will be playing Gideon’s love interest Meg Dawson – a role she’s absolutely thrilled about. ‘My character is a very strong, independent young woman,’ she explains. Without giving too much away, Meg had a daughter when she was quite young, forcing her to stand on her own two feet very early on in life. ‘She doesn’t take any nonsense from people,’ says Frances, ‘and there’s a bit of a love/hate relationship between her and Gideon – it’s a dynamic I’m really looking forward to exploring.’
Prior to landing this fantastic, feisty role, Frances has performed in a range of shows in London, including The Mother at The Tricycle Theatre, Love’s Labour's Lost/Love’s Labour’s Won with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and most recently, Big Fish the Musical at The Other Palace on the West End. She first moved South at the age of 18 to study at East 15 Acting School in Loughton, Essex, and while she’s mostly worked in the capital, this won’t be the first time that she’s performed at Northern Stage: she was cast as Arrietty in The Borrowers there back in 2012.
‘I haven’t been in a production at Northern Stage since Lorne Campbell took over as Artistic Director in 2013’, says Frances, ‘but I got great vibes from him at the audition and it’ll be a refreshing change to work with someone new.’ Frances regrets that she hasn’t been able to visit the North East as much as she’d like to in the past due to commitments in London, but this new project will certainly make up for that – ‘it really captures the spirit of the North East with its story and incredible score,’ she says.
Frances was familiar with The Last Ship before she was cast due to close ties from growing up in County Durham. ‘I feel like my background has given me an inherent knowledge of the shipbuilding industry,’ she says. ‘I’ve heard family members talk about it, and it’s very much like how the story of the miner’s strike lives on in the memories of people who were affected by that.’ There’s more to learn when she gets back to the North East though, and the first step will be to wander around Wallsend to get into character, finding out as much information as she can along the way. ‘I knew enough about it to get me through the audition,’ she laughs.
Locals familiar with the ins and outs of the industry will certainly be pleased with the show’s writing, which is very historically accurate thanks to Sting’s firsthand experience. The singer’s childhood home was just down the road from the famous Swan Hunter shipyard, which produced over 1,600 vessels before it closed in 2006. ‘He’s a genius,’ says Frances, ‘and I’ve been lucky enough to meet him already.’ Frances tells us that she had a shock to the system at her first audition, when she was invited for a recall and was told she’d be singing for Sting. ‘It was probably a good thing that they sprung it on me like that,’ she says, ‘because I didn’t have to dwell on it – I just went out there and did my thing.’ Frances has always been a fan of Sting’s music and early Police records, with her all-time favourite being Fields of Gold.
Her excitement is palpable as she speaks to us, but there’s one thing in particular that Frances is looking forward to about this project: ‘I can’t wait to play a part in bringing this community to people’s attention. Their story hasn’t really been told before.’
Tickets for The Last Ship (12 March–7 April) starring Frances McNamee, Richard Fleeshman, Charlie Hardwick and Joe McGann can be purchased from www.northernstage.co.uk
Brush up on your knowledge of the North East’s shipbuilding industry before the show, with our top facts
In the early 20th century, shipbuilding was one of the North East’s largest industries due to the demand for warships, and the region is regarded as the birthplace of some of the world’s greatest vessels. This global impact was recognised by UNESCO in 2013, on their Memory of the World Register.
Halfway through the roaring 20s, the unemployment rate in shipyards soared to 40 percent, and the worst-hit shipbuilding community was Jarrow, where unemployment reached 74 percent at the height of the Depression.
In Wallsend, Swan Hunter was established as a prolific shipbuilding company in 1880. Famously, it built RMS Maurentania which held the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic, and RMS Carpathia which rescued survivors from the Titanic.
Swan Hunter’s last ship – RFA Largs Bay – left the Wallsend dock in 2006, and the company’s demise was a major inspiration for Sting’s musical. It reopened 10 years later under Gerard Kroese, the eldest son of former owner Jaap Kroese, and now offers design and project management services to the subsea oil and gas energy market.