In the year of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, after fictional accounts and conjecture, documentaries, and journalism, a remarkable piece of pared down theater manages to entertain, inform, move, and comment from a completely original point of view.
The sweep and momentum of Jimmy Titanic is born by a single shape-shifting actor (Colin Hamell) who plays some 20 characters including John Jacob Astor, a prissy, Puckish Angel Gabriel and God (who chain smokes.)
We open in Heaven where Jimmy Boylan, former shipyard worker and sailor is putting us on with the testing of ill fitting wings. “We don’t really have wings up here.” Nicknamed Jimmy Titanic by curious admirers—“It can go to your head”—Jimmy and his mate Tommy Mackey went down with the ship. He was 25 at the time and wonders, after all these years, what really happened. The tale is a combination of Jimmy’s experiences and enacted response to his questions.
As the hold floods, Tommy, who knows all six million rivets and every passage, leads Jimmy out on deck. There were fewer lifeboats than prescribed (because more would have blocked the view) and there had been no emergency drill. A Spanish speaking passenger, desperately trying to get his family into a lifeboat, does not understand English warnings and for his efforts gets shot by a panicked seaman. The situation in a nutshell. Depiction is dramatic and affecting.
In another memory, Jimmy and Tommy, up to their ankles in freezing water, spot John Jacob Astor and Jacques Futrelle drinking and smoking in the library “as if on a beach.” The seamen are invited to have a drink. With Astor’s encouragement, Tommy proudly expounds on the building of the ship. “Me, I was more interested in how John managed to land a 19 year-old.” (Astor’s new bride who survived.)
Sequencing between unimaginable tragedy, the singular point of view of a surprised, young victim, vignettes in the offices of the New York Times and the Mayor of Belfast (where the ship was built and the blood sport of attributing blame plays out), and Heaven (comic relief) is deft and fluid. We even listen to two boys watching the ship head to sea. One is in awe and dreams of traveling to America, while the other is cynical and content. “What do they have in America that we don’t have here in Cork?” he demands. “Food and Work,” comes the answer. His companion remains unconvinced.
The firmament is an absolute hoot. Jimmy’s lines while on the make at a disco and his self imposed rules on fraternization are as lighthearted as Gabriel’s remarks about the NDs (newly dead) “It was a mudslide. Look at the muck of them. Yeah, yeah, désolé” or his comments about the disaster “’Ever hear of Driver’s Ed? ’Big object in front of yuz, steer around it!”
“Sometimes at night, I’m back on the Titanic…1498 people lost…their pride and joy; the wonder ship,” muses Jimmy.
Playwright Bernard McMullan has given us a well researched, wholly persuasive piece without ever succumbing to the exaggerated tugging of Hallmark heartstrings. Characterizations are realistic, though simplified for flow. Scenes that make one shudder are balanced by those with wicked humor. The conceit of such cavalcade being presented as a one man show is inspired. I found only a single episode, that in the Senate, dry and expendable.
Colin Hamell has the energy and passion of a holy roller evangelist. They must carry him out on a stretcher. The mercurial actor zips from role to role with only a change of lighting and blink between, if that. Most characters have distinguishing cadence. His portrayal of the unsophisticated, jaunty, and likeable Jimmy is irresistible. Hamell occupies the stage with dynamism and focus.
Director Carmel O’Reilly utilizes the small space with terrific ingenuity. Her actor is rarely still for long and manages to effect location changes by interacting with a single piece of movable set. Physicality is paramount. I gather from the playwright that some of the more outrageous attributes depicted are the collaborative invention of O’Reilly and Hamell. The fast paced production pauses when effective, then continues headlong with a steady hand at the helm.
Lighting Design by Michael O’Connor is effective and integral.
I’m afraid this galvanic and worthy piece was only here for a very few performances. Its creators are hoping for an extended New York production elsewhere, however, and should be on your radar.
Tir Na Productions in Association with
The Drilling Company present
Jimmy Titanic by Barnard McMullan
Featuring Colin Hamell
Directed by Carmel O’Reilly
The Drilling Company Theater
236 West 78th Street