SHAKESPEARE'S Rose Theatre is not the only big show in town opening this week. Building a theatre on a car park in three and a half weeks is an impressive sight, and so too is the epic scale of Policeman Sting's debut stage musical, The Last Ship, docked for six days at the Theatre Royal.

"We build ships," say the emboldened, defiant shipworkers of Wallsend, Sting's childhood home, where ships once took shape at the end of his street. So big and complex are the designs that building the set was proving a challenge, the opening delayed by half an hour for technical reasons, or more precisely to try to maximise 59 Productions' projections that had so impressed at the Leeds Grand Theatre.

Producer Karl Sydow was hopeful at Monday's press night that further adjustments, involving a gauze fly, could be made in time for the second performance, but York Theatre Royal is the smallest stage on this tour. The canvas at The Lowry will be three times bigger, larger than Leeds too.

York Press:

The full cast of The Last Ship. Picture: Pamela Raith

Yet although the full spectacle cannot be replicated in York, technical wizardry is but one aspect of this musical cum play with music. After all, it is not so much a show about ships as the North Eastern people who built them, the men and their supporting women; the pride in that work and the time called on their livelihood by the cold grip of the Thatcher government, lampooned here in the unbending blue suit of Baroness Tyne (understudy Susan Fay).

Built around the ancient myth of The Last Ship, re-set on the Wallsend docks, Sting's folk-rooted musical is propelled by two story lines: the return of shipbuilder's son Gideon Fletcher (Richard Fleeshman), now a warrant office after 17 years at sea, looking to rekindle love with Meg Dawson (Frances McNamee), the childhood sweetheart he left behind, promising to return much sooner than he did. He arrives to rather more than he anticipated: a harsh welcome he might have expected, but not a sparky 16-year-old daughter Ellen (Katie Moore), who has ambitions to take her band to London.

The ebb and flow of these reunion blues, sung and played magnificently by Fleeshman and McNamee, ably backed up by the puckish Moore, is interwoven with the agit-prop clash of workers and bosses in the dockyard as Seam Kearns' egregious Freddy Newlands informs the workers the yard will close and the last ship, Utopia, will be broken down.

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The Last Ship composer and lyricist Sting, pictured by the Tyne in Newcastle.

Principled foreman Jackie White (Joe McGann) and his resilient wife Peggy (Penelope Woodman deputising stoically all week for the sadly unwell Charlie Hardwick) lead the resistance; impassioned shop steward Billy (Joe Caffrey), ancient Greek mythology-loving carpenter Adrian (Charlie Richmond) and booze-embittered Davey (Tom waits-voiced Kevin Wathen) fight for their rights.

Directed by Northern Stage supremo Lorne Campbell, who has written the show's much punchier new book since the Broadway premiere, The Last Ship is politically potent and poignant, ruggedly humorous, too angry to be nostalgic or sentimental; but righteous in the right way and romantic but raw at heart, as it celebrates northern working-class, lyrical storytelling and asks: "Are we not beautiful?".

Then add Sting's magical, moving, mellifluous songs and Lucy Hind's dynamic, muscular, heavy-industry movement direction and it goes for your heart as well as pounding against your head. Bigger in scale than either Brassed Off or Billy Elliot, The Last Ship could go on to match their success and would be better still for editing its length, should a London run beckon. 

The Last Ship, Northern Stage, York Theatre Royal, until Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at