On Friday night, thanks to a wonderfully generous gesture from a friend, Sebastian and I saw the Unthanks perform 'Songs from the Shipyards' at the South Bank Centre. The show comprised a film, put together by Richard Fenwick from archive and newsreel footage from the 1940s through to the 80s, covering the boom and subsequent decline of shipbuilding on the Tyne, accompanied by the band singing their arrangements of mainly contemporaneous songs. And that's it, basically - and at little more than an hour, it was so brief that they were able to put on two performances each evening.
But it was one of the most moving and stirring sixty minutes entertainment I have ever had. Almost impossible to put into words, the power of the old film - men rivetting, welding, climbing gantries... warships being launched... ships in battle; ships being sunk... cruise ships being launched; massive oil tankers on the drawing board; being built, and dwarfing the terraced streets as they are launched... Thatcher (to boos and hisses from the audience); foreign competition, decline, closure and demolition of the yards' buildings and cranes. And this combined expertly with songs written by local people at the time, and later classics like Elvis Costello's 'Shipbuilding', along with arrangements of Rudyard Kipling's poem 'Big Steamers', which looks trite on the page but was given a heartrending air of naivete by Niopha Keegan's singing (better known as the Unthanks' violinist, she has a great voice which complements both Rachel and Becky Unthank's very different voices). The whole thing was fabulous. I was surprised that they didn't get a standing ovation for it (being in the front row, I was far too shy to start one!). Immediately afterwards, Sebastian booked tickets for him and Izzi to see it at Bexhill, one of the last remaining shows not to be sold out.
I am just hoping now that they will release the film with a recorded soundtrack, for cinemas, maybe even on DVD. If you get the chance, see it. If not, you can buy the CD of the songs, but beautiful as they are, the combination of music and image is so much greater than the sum of its parts.