By Marilyn Lester
You may think you know all about the sinking of RMS Titanic in the long ago seas of the North Atlantic, but you really don’t know the half of it – at least not through the eyes of James Boylan. Boylan, aka Jimmy Titanic, you see, was there. He went down with the ship in the wee hours of April 15, 1912. If there were a top-ten list of all-time world-shaking events, Jimmy could tell you exactly why the collision of iceberg and Titanic would be on it – and why the story has become even bigger than the giant ship itself. By virtue of association, Jimmy has attained a certain exalted status in his afterlife. But our first glimpse of him is as an awkward new arrival in Heaven, trying to adjust to wings. It’s a joke though, a prank by the Archangel Gabriel, a trickster who manages the JDs, the “just dead” newbies arriving through the Pearly Gates. Flash forward to now, where Jimmy Boylan has become Jimmy Titanic, a Heavenly rock star still held in awe a century after the disaster.
Jimmy, a Belfast shipyard worker and Titanic crewman, is played by the versatile and remarkable Colin Hamell, who wears his character like a second skin. He’s been playing Boylan, and the 20 or so characters who speak through him, since 2012, touring the play internationally. Hamell is a wonder to behold, moving energetically from one scene to the next in rapid-fire flashbacks, careening through time and place and running the gamut of emotion. The County Meath-born Hamell is also a deft hand at accents, from lyrical Cork to guttural Belfast to a few styles of American and the very British. He’s nimble in his physicality and in his ability to switch characters on a dime. In one moment he’s a comically toady Saint Peter to a mafia-like boss of a cigar-smoking God. In a particularly affecting scene he plays the wealthiest man on the ship, John Jacob Astor IV, who invites the “low-born” Jimmy to sit and take a glass of brandy with him. There are plenty of laughs in Jimmy Titanic, and plenty of pathos too, especially in scenes with Tommy Mackey, Jimmy’s best friend. These two helped build this mighty ship at the Harland and Wolff yard, and they take her sinking very personally.
Irish playwright and Belfast native, Bernard McMullan, packs a great deal of substance into 75 minutes of play and he does it with a delicacy of storytelling that’s titanic in itself. There are facts and figures disbursed throughout, such as the demographics of those aboard. Titanic was an immigrant ship, reveals Jimmy. Of the passengers, 324 were in first class, 284 in second class, 869 in third class and 885 crew – more common folk than the very rich. Most of the crew perished, along with 54% of third class passengers, a great proportion of the 1500 or so souls who died. Yet, the text is never expository. Hamell’s delivery of the statistics and other factual tidbits, such as the mechanics of powering the great vessel, is mesmerizing.
What McMullan conveys through Jimmy is a trenchant observation of the human condition. It’s all there in the story of Titanic – a mythic story and the ultimate cautionary tale. McMullan’s wacky construct of Heaven may or may not be a potshot at religion, but it does serve as comic relief as well as reinforce the quixotic nature of the human condition. McMullan’s Heaven is much like earth – there’s online dating for instance, and a club culture, and Gabriel is very much a chancer – but it is strife-free. What does come across clearly is humankind’s capacity for positive and negative, especially greed and hubris.
The Titanic was built by the White Star Line as a demonstration of superiority over the fleet of the rival Cunard. Problems before the maiden voyage were ignored or swept under the rug. Notoriously, there weren’t enough lifeboats to handle the ship’s capacity. Yet, in defending Titanic, R.J. McMordie, the Lord Mayor of Belfast, blusters he will entertain no questioning of the manufacture of the ship. In contrast to the machinations of power and politics, there is portrayed the nobility of the human spirit. There’s Jimmy’s friendship with Tommy and the pride they feel in their work and accomplishment. The goodness in humanity is shown in scenes of selfless sacrifice to save those who could be saved. And it’s demonstrated in the several portrayals of aspects of love and family ties.
Creating the environment, in which Jimmy remembers Titanic, with the expanded vision of the dead, is no small part of the play’s success. The set of two panels, starkly evocative of a ship’s hull, are a sharp reminder of Titanic’s looming presence. Lighting effects are nothing less than a master class in the craft. The exquisite lighting changes, one after the other, keeping pace with Jimmy’s narrative, perfectly help set mood and tone. Both wondrous elements were designed by Michael Gottlieb. Jimmy Titanic was directed by Carmel O’Reilly, who kept the pace moving briskly and helped navigate the piece with a steady, sure hand.
Photos: Carol Rosegg
Irish Repertory Theatre presents The Tír Na Theatre Company’s production of Jimmy Titanic, through February 18, 2018, in the W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre. Check the web site for further information: www.irishrep.org
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22 St., 212-727-2737