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Bernard McMullan

Jimmy Titanic – The Sinking and Afterlife


I saw a production of Jimmy Titanic with this actor and director in 2012 at a tiny walk-up theater on the Upper West Side. Apparently it’s toured since then. I’m delighted theater-goers finally have an opportunity to experience the piece during a formal run. Some descriptions are from the previous critique.

Portraying over 20 characters including John Jacob Astor, the prissy, Puckish Angel Gabriel, and a cynical, laissez-faire God (who chain smokes), actor Colin Hamell shape-shifts with the best of them. A wide variety of accents are employed. Most offer distinctive cadence, though the American one might best be described as “gruff.”

The small W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre is deftly utilized. Direction by Carmel O’Reilly seems somewhat louder and broader than that which I recall, but remains engaging. Performance is energetic, and impressively focused. The addition of Michael Gottlieb’s utterly symbiotic Lighting Design and evocative music/sound  which is curiously uncredited add immersive atmosphere. (Gottlieb’s riveted, ostensibly steel walled Set is perfect.)

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”—he 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, enough for perhaps half the passengers (regulations were minimal and more boats would have blocked the view) and there had been no emergency drill. Further indications of incompetence make one wonder how easily the incident might’ve been avoided. A Spanish speaking passenger, desperately trying to get his family into a lifeboat, doesn’t understand English warnings and gets shot by a panicked seaman for his desperate efforts. The situation in a nutshell.

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 honeymooning bride survived.)

Segueing 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 blood sport attributing blame plays out), and Heaven (comic relief) is adroit. We even listen to two boys watching the Titanic head to sea. One is in awe and dreams of traveling to America, while the other skeptical. “What do they have in America that we don’t have here in Cork?” he demands. “Food and work,” comes the answer. His companion is unconvinced.

The firmament is a hoot. Jimmy’s pick-up lines while on the make at a disco (watch this actor mooove!) and his self imposed rules on fraternization are as lighthearted as Gabriel’s remarks about the NDs (newly dead) or his comments about the disaster “’Ever hear of Driver’s Ed? Big object in front of yuz, steer around it!”

Playwright Bernard McMullen’s perspective manages to be at once original, moving, humorous, and informative. You can’t help but be thoroughly entertained.

As the unsophisticated, jaunty, likeable Jimmy, Colin Hamell is irresistible.

On its maiden voyage, the supposedly “unsinkable” RMS Titanic hit an iceberg, sinking in The North Atlantic Sea  April 15, 1912. Out of an estimated 2,224 passengers and crew, many below deck immigrants, over 1,500 died.

Colorised photo of Ned Parfett, best known as the “Titanic paperboy,” holding a large newspaper banner advert about the sinking, standing outside the White Star Line offices at Oceanic House on Cockspur Street near Trafalgar Square in London SW1, April 16, 1912. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Production Photos by Carol Rosegg

Tir Na Theatre Company presents
Jimmy Titanic by Bernard McMullan
Performed by Colin Hamell
Directed by Carmel O’Reilly
Irish Repertory Theatre    
132 West 22nd Street
Through February 18, 2018

Listen to Alix Cohen talk about covering theater on WAT-CAST.