A victim of the Titanic tells us his afterlife story.
It's been 20 years since TitanicMania swept the world in the form of James Cameron's wildly popular film about star-crossed love on the doomed ocean liner. "Damn the king of the world," dissents Jimmy Boylan, a victim of the disaster who finds nothing romantic about his death. He's the protagonist of Bernard McMullan's Jimmy Titanic, the unabashedly strange solo play now at the Irish Repertory Theatre. It stars an enthusiastic Colin Hamell as Jimmy, telling his side of the story from heaven. At 75 minutes, it is far shorter and more intimate than the 1997 Hollywood blockbuster, yet it manages to pack in just as much schmaltz.
Of course, if it weren't for the undying fascination we hold for the 1912 nautical disaster, Jimmy wouldn't be nearly as popular as he is upstairs. The denizens of Heaven have dubbed him "Jimmy Titanic" in recognition of his notable death, which has apparently done wonders for his dating afterlife. "We get invited to all the big parties," he brags. It's a far cry from his earthly existence as one of 14,000 Belfast shipbuilders. Jimmy went aboard the Titanic as part of the ship's guarantee group, all of whom perished in the accident (and none of whom were actually named James).
Between humorous dispatches from the world beyond, Jimmy tells heartbreaking stories of the fight for survival during the ship's final hour. He steps into the roles of millionaire victim John Jacob Astor and White Star Line chairman Bruce Ismay, among other historical figures. We come to know a little bit about the fierce competition in early 20th-century passenger shipping, and the centrality of shipbuilding to the Belfast economy. Grimly, we also learn that out of 33 Bulgarian passengers, none were saved. It all feels a bit like A Night to Remember repurposed as church basement stand-up comedy.
Hamell skirts the limits of dogma with his portrayals of a swishy angel Gabriel, and God as a chain-smoking Irish mob boss. All of his characters are given distinctive voices and physicality, so it is never difficult to determine who is speaking. Unfortunately, you may cringe through his wobbly New York accent for an editor of The Times. His southern growl for Michigan Senator William Alden Smith is baffling.
McMullan's script lurches between comedy and high drama, with Hamell and director Carmel O'Reilly committing completely to the tone of each moment. "Por favor, mi familia," he pleads as a Spanish steerage passenger trying to get his children on a lifeboat. A few lines later, he describes the absurd spectacle of the first class set arriving at the gates of Saint Peter and demanding their luggage. It's a mélange of morbidity that only an obit-obsessed Irish granny could truly appreciate.
Scenic designer Michael Gottlieb riddles the stage with rivets to make us feel like we're looking at the bowels of the Titanic. His evocative lighting aids in the scene transitions which are so essential to this solo performance that takes place on two continents and multiple planes of existence.
Weighed down as it is by trivia and sentiment, Jimmy Titanic is unlikely to offer anything new to disaster aficionados. Through his affable presence and sheer force of will, though, Hamell manages to keep this show afloat just long enough for us to safely disembark.