‘Titanic: The Movie, The Play’ was rollicking.
‘Titanic: The Movie, The Play’ by Act React opened with a splash at Brisbane Powerhouse this weekend in a production that successfully manages to honour one of the most beloved films in cinematic history while turning it from a love-torn tragedy to a side-splitting interactive comedy. Audiences lining up to get into the immersive theatre, constructed in the Powerhouse Plaza, likely had no idea they were about to set sail on an experience more akin to attending a games night with your most theatrical friends than a traditional one-act play. For 70 minutes the laughs, gags, and surprises did not stop.
The story of the Titanic as told in the 1997 record-breaking film is known well enough that to summarize the plot would be almost redundant; but to better serve this outstanding production, what you need to know is that you and the rest of the audience are joining in an expedition under the sea to uncover the secrets and stories littered among the wreckage. Sure, your tour guide is more interested in finding the lost and (almost) priceless Le Cœur de la Mer, but much more exciting is what transpires between star-crossed lovers Jack and Rose, her overbearing fiancé, and a cast of other characters sailing on this doomed “unsinkable” ship. Act React, who is also known for writing and producing ‘Speed: The Movie, The Play/ and ‘Die Hard: The Movie The Play’ have re-mounted their production after it last played at the Queensland Maritime Museum as part of Anywhere Festival in 2019, and hopefully it continues to play for many more audiences across Australia after this three-week run.
What is most impressive about this show is the production’s ability to effortlessly juggle its various genres: it is part scripted play, part stand-up comedy, part slapstick, part improvisation sketch, and part cinematic homage. There is audience participation in spades; within the first five minutes a lucky ticket holder gets to serve as the first Young Rose of many, reading cue cards and following basic stage direction from calm and confident cast members.
The crowd is initially ushered into a “submarine” heading into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean where Tom Dunstan begins casually conversing with the audience, who have become his expedition team .This lack of fourth wall divide and reference to the hilarity of the “fish” floating by (see: blow up toys and umbrella jellyfish puppets) helps to prepare the audience to loosen up and dive into the show. The outdoor setting gives the real feeling of being on an open deck and set design by Scott Driscoll and Daren King builds upon this in tremendous fashion. Once seated, audiences get the first up-close view of the spectacular set: the bow of the Titanic juts out high above the crowd (built by the Queensland Maritime Museum who also donated the show’s lifeboats), giving the perspective of the dolphins dancing around in the waves on her maiden voyage. All on-deck action takes place at audience level in front of black curtains, which simultaneously serve to facilitate quick changes, puppet displays, but are also cleverly incorporated into the action of the play. The iconic moments you hope to see are perfectly executed over the railing of the ship’s bow. The set was effective and transported the crowd directly into the film, while still being inviting enough for audience participants to feel comfortable coming aboard.
Lighting design by Brooklyn Matthews and Natalie Bochenski masterfully set the tone and highlighted dramatic shifts in the action, while remaining subtle enough that the audience could remain engaged and directly involved in the show. Bold reds were used during Billy Zane’s regular outbursts, while splashes of green foretold trouble and the impending iceberg. The lighting was key in creating necessary climaxes in the story, and was helped along by the contribution of sound. Not only was sound design by Gregory Rowbotham smart and witty, but it was so perfectly timed with the on-stage action, it felt like it was actually happening and not being controlled by a sound board. Somehow the sound design combined with brilliant director choices managed to make it appropriate that both ‘Pretty Woman’ and ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’ be played in the same show, though not in ways you would expect.
Complimenting and elevating the show were the amusing props and costumes. Costumes by Amy Driscoll had a delicate balance between more “accurate” pieces and the outrageous ones, along with unexpected pop culture references. Characters like Thomas Andrews, Jack Dawson, and Molly Brown evoked images of the film and were well-tailored and sharp, while other cameo roles were more comically dressed. A highlight was the all-too-famous “draw me like one of your French girls” scene, but I won’t take away the opportunity for future audiences to be surprised. The props– also done by Scott Driscoll and Daren King– made sure favourite moments from the film were not lost (the drawing of Rose that begins the whole adventure makes an early appearance), while others, like leaping dolphins or the iceberg itself, were turned into hilarious acts of physical comedy with well-choreographed puppet handling.
It is necessary to highlight that every technical element, every stage direction, every individual performance was done in earnest; there was sincere love for the story of Titanic in every moment of the show. Stage direction was dynamic and exciting, putting the audience right in the middle of the action, and helped along by polished and well-rehearsed cast performances. Natalie Bochenski as “Old Rose” was the narrator and ringmaster of sorts, juggling a heavy amount of improvisation with moving the story along, and still managed to squeeze in a few quick changes to play other roles. She brings a clear confidence and sense of play to the show and these attributes were reflected in her castmates.
Daren King as Jack Dawson was eager and innocent, delivering his lines with the naivety audiences love from the character. Particularly enjoyable was the wide-eyed genuine joy he showed while spinning in a circle with Rose #2 at the party below deck; it must be noted he spent much of his on-stage time with audience participants, meaning he was a master of cue card shuffling and gently hinting at stage directions while remaining in character.
One of the most challenging parts to play in a show with nearly non-stop gags and unexpected ad-libbing would be that of the villain; Christopher Batkin as Billy Zane handled the task with aplomb. Billy became a comedic highlight through Batkin’s commitment to his pompous and self-righteous attitude amidst the show’s chaos; before you go, brush up on your Billy Zane movie trivia or you’ll miss his hilarious efforts to gloat about his lacklustre career.
Molly Brown was done justice by Johanna Lyon who had all the makings of an old Hollywood glamour star in the role, but exhibited excellent comedic timing through her delivery of modern references and jokes. Tom Dunstan in his many roles gave the impression he was just happy to be along for the ride, which invited audience members to join in on all the fun he and the rest of the cast were having on stage. Scott Driscoll and Damien Campagnolo as The Captain and Thomas Andrews made an excellent partnership in their scenes together with some of the biggest laughs of the night. Appearances by Ellen Hardisty and Amy Driscoll in various roles were improvisation experts, tasked with navigating some of the more hilarious audience cameos. The full cast must be commended for the amount of effort that was put into making the show feel effortless; this group worked together with the cohesion of a cast at the end of its run, rather than its first weekend of performances. If there was the occasional hiccup, the cast managed to coolly turn it into a joke garnering more laughter for their quick thinking.
‘Titanic: The Movie, The Play’ is a show for absolutely everyone. True fans of the film will appreciate the ways it brings Leo and Kate circa 1997 to life, and regular theatregoers will enjoy a night of pure entertainment and brilliance that leaves crowds laughing too hard to find a single fault. The team at Act React Theatre have created a truly special show and brought together an ensemble of titanic proportions to deliver it to what will surely be sold-out audiences. And if the idea of audience participation scares you, this is the show to throw yourself in the deep end and risk being put in the spotlight; the view from the bow of this Titanic is absolutely worth it.
‘Titanic: The Movie, The Play’ runs until Sunday, 12 September 2021 at the Brisbane Powerhouse. For more information visit Act React’s website.
Photos by Anderson