Gideon’s Trumpet

By Ross Altman, PhD

The last shipSting brought the Royal Family to the Ahmanson Theatre last night—Opening Night—while the Queen nonchalantly dismissed Harry and Meghan from her “royal family.” The last words of his Royal Family were “We build ships!” a slightly unauthorized curtain call by Gideon Fletcher—he of “Gideon’s Trumpet,” from my title—the prodigal son who returns home after 17 years at sea to find his old flame Meg has all but died out. (Sting seemed visibly annoyed at the shouted repetition, but the actor—Oliver Savile—who portrays Gideon) put his arm around Sting and reminded him where he was and what he stood for—with just a quiet whisper—the “rebels with a cause” who had just taken over the shipyard in one last act of defiance to build “The Last Ship” of the title. It was entirely fitting that this entirely British cast took over the stage even from the star who brought them on—especially when last seen that star was in a casket on stage—having given his life for the crew who came to represent the working class who built it.

It was a sight to see—and hear—a transcendent production by the Center Theatre Group in its Los Angeles premiere with performances running through February 16, 2020, produced by Karl Sydow. There are so many thrilling elements of this musical to call attention to: Seventeen-time Grammy Award®-winner Sting stars as shipyard foreman, ‘Jackie White,’ and will perform the role at every performance. The words and music—though not the book—are by Sting. “The Last Ship” has a new book and direction by incoming artistic director of the National Theatre Wales Lorne Campbell; Sting is joined by Frances McNamee as ‘Meg,’ Jackie Morrison as ‘Peggy White’ and Oliver Savile as ‘Gideon Fletcher.’

The remainder of the entirely British cast—all of whom earn their stripes as the play unfolds—even including Sean Kearns—who has the thankless task of portraying the owner who the company rebels against when they take over the shipyard— “Tensions flare and picket lines are drawn as foreman Jackie White (Sting) rallies the workers to take over the shipyard and build one last ship in the face of the gathering storm.”-- includes Marc Akinfolarin, Joe Caffrey, Matt Corner, Susan Fay, Orla Gormley, Annie Grace, Sean Kearns, Oliver Kearney, David Muscat, Tom Parsons, Joseph Peacock, Sophie Reid, Hannah Richardson and Jade Sophia Vertannes.

Sting as the shipyard foreman has the best line in the show—one of his men says to him, “Rome wasn’t built in a day;” to which Sting replies: “I wasn’t the foreman on that job.” There are passing (un-credited) references to great English literature: “Life in nature is mean, nasty, brutish and short,” from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan; and Dylan Thomas’ great villanelle: “Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Even though Thomas is here addressing his dying father, Sting’s use of the line is especially poignant, as it occurs late in the second act, when Jackie White is dying of mesothelioma—caused by exposure to asbestos—and is raging against his own death.

One of the known sources of exposure to asbestos is shipyards—and it is a deadly form of cancer—usually fatal within a year—so it’s no accident that Sting’s character is shown dying from it. The scene at the end where he is being cradled in his wife’s arms—with Jackie Morrison as Peggy White—is heartbreakingly real—not what I had expected to see in a show starring Sting. This shows you how serious Sting is about recreating the lost world of shipbuilding—where his coffin is the symbol of their struggle against time. It couldn’t be more resonant—including the ominous song that foreshadows his demise:

"So To Speak"

(feat. Becky Unthank)

[Father O'Brian:]

They're seriously saying it's prolonging me life,
If I'll only submit to the surgical knife?
But what are the odds on a month or a week?
When the betting shop's closing its doors, so to speak.
When you're tied to a pump and a breathing machine,
With their X-rays and probes and their monitor screens,
And they'll wake ye up hungry, saying "How do ye feel?"
And then you're stuffed full of pills and a barium meal.

Prolonging me life? Now that's some kind of joke!
I'd be laughing me head off and I'd probably choke.
The spirit's still willing but the rest of me's weak,
Now the bets are all off and the prospects look bleak,
When you're laid like a piece of old meat on the slab,
And they'll cut and they'll slice, and they'll poke and they'll jab,
And they'll grill ye and burn ye, and they'll wish ye good health,
With their radium, chemo and God knows what else?

Well ye can't fault the science, though the logic is weak,
Is it really an eternal life we should seek?
That ship has sailed,
That ship has sailed,
That ship has already sailed...So to speak.

(Lyrics by Gordon Sumner—Sting’s real name)

The title song—The Last Ship—both opens and closes the show:

"The Last Ship"

It's all there in the gospels, the Magdalene girl
Comes to pay her respects, but her mind is awhirl.
When she finds the tomb empty, the stone had been rolled,
Not a sign of a corpse in the dark and the cold.
When she reaches the door, sees an unholy sight,
There's this solitary figure in a halo of light.
He just carries on floating past Calvary Hill,
In an almighty hurry, aye but she might catch him still.

"Tell me where are ye going Lord, and why in such haste?"
"Now don't hinder me woman, I've no time to waste!
For they're launching a boat on the morrow at noon,
And I have to be there before daybreak.
Oh I canna be missing, the lads'll expect me,
Why else would the good Lord himself resurrect me?
For nothing will stop me, I have to prevail,
Through the teeth of this tempest, in the mouth of a gale,
May the angels protect me if all else should fail,
When the last ship sails."

Oh the roar of the chains and the cracking of timbers,
The noise at the end of the world in your ears,
As a mountain of steel makes its way to the sea,
And the last ship sails.

It's a strange kind of beauty,
It's cold and austere,
And whatever it was that ye've done to be here,
It's the sum of yr hopes yr despairs and yr fears,
When the last ship sails.

(Lyrics by Gordon Sumner)

This takes me back to the last time I was immersed in this world of a traditional singer—shanty man Stan Hugill from Wales. He was the last true Shanty man—83 years old when I knew him, and as I wrote in Stan Hugill, my tribute song for him:

For he was like a symphony conductor
A packet ship was a concert hall to Stan
And the sailors singing with him used to do their jobs in rhythm
To the music of the shanty man.

Chorus: O wondrous world of wooden ships and humpback whales
    Of iron men pulling ropes and hauling sails
    Before we all were born he sailed around Cape Horn
    And came back with a thousand tales.

At one time the glory of the ocean
Her canvas sails towering to the sky
She’d scent the breeze with spice and teas from China
And the smaller ships would bow as she passed by
Then reduced to hauling coal and guano
Her days were numbered as the age of steam began
And the Panama Canal that dirty ditch with her squat pot-bellied steamers
Brought tears to the shanty man.(Ch.)

 (“Stan Hugill,” by Ross Altman, on Pigasus, © (p) 1992 Grey Goose Music (BMI))

On Jimmy Kimmel Live last night, Sting reminisced about growing up in Wallsend, Northumberland, which inspired the musical: “His father expected him to take a job in the shipyards, but he said that when the Queen Mother and her brigade visited his hometown, he locked eyes with her and realized he didn’t want to spend his life toiling away. He wanted to be like the Queen Mother and live a more glamorous life.” But he finally realized that he’d been given a great gift growing up in this epic landscape, and eventually had to pay it back, by recreating the shipyard and the community of sailors and workers he’d grown up among—that’s when “The Last Ship” was born.

‘In my beginning is my end.’ wrote T.S. Eliot in East Coker, the second of the Four Quartets. Eliot speaks to the circularity of life, in the same way Sting does in this play. He continues:

In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.’

Eliot comes back to this thought at the end of East Coker:

‘Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.’

Sting lives up to Eliot’s wise words—at the end he has become an explorer—and can say, “In my end is my beginning.” He has recreated from memory the home he left behind. The reference to the Resurrection in “The Last Ship” also foreshadows the coffin he is in at the end. It’s a brilliant achievement: His doppelganger is Gideon, who in effect resurrects him after Jackie White’s death—and in the penultimate scene succeeds in reuniting with his lost love, Meg, who had soundly rejected him when he first comes back to her at the beginning. At the end he is completely committed to the task of building one last ship with the company of fired workers who need a leader to stand up to the owner. That is “Gideon’s Trumpet,” as surely as the biblical story in which Gideon ordered his small force to attack a much larger enemy camp. Gideon's army carried trumpets and concealed torches in clay pots. It’s the same reference that Anthony Lewis used in his dramatic story of Clarence Earl Gideon, the impoverished Florida convict who couldn’t afford a lawyer and won the Supreme Court’s sanction for public counsel that changed the course of legal history. Sting is too knowledgeable a songwriter not to have been aware of that connection when he dreamed up the name of this pivotal character.

On Jimmy Kimmel Live on ABC Sting brought with him the entire cast of the play to perform one of the standout numbers from the show—a Morris dance tune called:
"What Have We Got?"

Good people give ear to me story,
Pay attention, and none of your lip,
For I've brought you five lads and their daddy,
Intending to build ye's a ship.
Wallsend is wor habitation,
It's the place we was all born and bred.
And there's nay finer lads in the nation,
And none are more gallantly led….

What have ye got, but the singing in the cables?
Oh, what have ye got, but the ringing in your ears?
Aye, what have ye got, but the telling of the fables?
And the memories of the ships, that we've been building donkey's years…

Thanks to Sting and this glorious musical the memories of the ships will be preserved—and the men and women who outlived them.

With thanks to Kristi Avila for the press pass for the Ahmanson Theatre — and apologies to Anthony Lewis for the title.

In memory of Stan, author of Shanties of the Seven Seas.

Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton (1973); belongs to Local 47 (AFM); heads up The Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club; writes for FolkWorks; Ross may be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.