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He's Singing About His Home

By: Linda Buchwald
Date: Oct 23, 2014


The first voice heard in the new Broadway musical The Last Ship is Jimmy Nail's. "I'm very proud that I get to open the show," he says. "It always fills me with great pride that I begin the show and I can sing about Newcastle upon Tyne."

Nail is from the Benton neighborhood of that northern British city, and this show has given him a chance to connect once again with the place he left long ago.

The Last Ship
, which is at the Neil Simon Theatre, specifically takes place in Wallsend, a shipyard town near Newcastle upon Tyne. It's the birthplace of Gordon Sumner, better known as Sting, who wrote the score and whose life partially inspired the story about a man named Gideon Fletcher, who comes back home after 15 years away. He returns to find that the shipyard he left town to escape has been shut down. At the urging of a priest, the shipyard workers break in to build one last ship---a ship for themselves.

Nail plays Jackie White, the engineering foreman. Describing the character, he says, "He's a man of few words, but his words are usually coherent and meaningful. He's not one for lightweight banter. He's a man who understands his role within the working community. He cares about them like a shepherd would care for his flock."

Jackie and other characters are introduced in the song "Shipyard," a scene which Nail says is important in terms of explaining to the audience that their way of life is in jeopardy. "I try to bring with it the requisite gravitas and concern that it merits," he says, speaking in the same Geordie cadence as the characters in the show. (Occasionally, the mostly American cast has asked Nail about the pronunciation of a vowel or word, but he says it's mostly left in the capable hands of dialect coach Ben Furey.)

Nail's father was an engineering foreman and Nail himself worked as a shipyard engineer when he was young, so he drew on those experiences to create Jackie. "He's an amalgam of all different kinds of ideas and thoughts and memories," Nail says.

This is Nail's theatrical debut. He has worked extensively in television and film, including the movie Evita, and he's perhaps best known for the series Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. The biggest challenge, he says, was whether he could pull off an arduous two-and-a-half-hour musical. But one wouldn't suspect his lack of stage experience from his performance. With a tall and lean frame, he is a commanding presence on stage, and very natural in the role.

Before a performance, Nail spends time sitting and thinking about what he's about to do, but he doesn't go into much detail, as he finds it impossible to talk about his process. "I don't particularly enjoy analyzing what I do as a performer. I tend to just try and get on with it," he says. "I'm not one for self-analysis, and I'm not a great one for pulling things apart and putting them under a microscope. Every actor has his own way of getting to where he needs to be. Some actors like to talk about that. This one certainly doesn't."

--- Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre as @PataphysicalSci

Photo by Joan Marcus

tweets about theatre at @PataphysicalSci. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.