As Sting’s musical The Ship sails to York this month, Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad caught up with the global superstar.
Sting’s feeling a little spaced out. He was performing in Las Vegas last night, see, and took a sleeping tablet on the plane he stepped on after the gig. He’s now in Leeds a day later and about to head to the Leeds Grand Theatre to watch his new play The Last Ship.
It’s a weird life, isn’t it, Sting?
“In anyone’s life but mine, kidda,” says Sting.
“I dreamt big as a kid. I dreamt I’d be a songwriter or a singer of songs and I would go around the world and do that. I suppose I must have dreamt really hard.”
It is a bit weird to sit down and chat with Sting. For a start, I know his name is Gordon Sumner, that Sting is a stage name, and it feels weird to call him ‘Sting’. But it’s immediately clear it would be even weirder to call him ‘Gordon’.
The multi-million selling recording artist, movie producer, actor is now also a musical theatre writer and composer. The Last Ship, his paean to the community shipyards that forged him as a youngster, began its life earlier this year in, appropriately, Newcastle, before heading out on tour. When we meet, the production has reached Leeds and docks at the York Theatre Royal for a week later this month.
Sting is pretty pleased with the reaction so far: “It’s a story that’s been coming all of my life. As a kid I thought I would end up working in the shipyards that I could see from my house, but I had other dreams, I wanted to be a singer and musician. Luckily that happened, but I’ll never forget the community I was brought up in and the people who worked in the shipyards and what doing that meant to them.
“The Last Ship is a love story about my community, to my community. It feels like a way of me honouring them and thanking them for making me who I am.”
Sting grew up amid turmoil in the ship building industry and, although that would have appeared to be his destiny, formed a band in 1977 that would change that. Along with Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers, his music defined the 80s and 90s, with The Police and with his own solo music. He has sold close to 100 million albums in his career.
In fact, didn’t I read that he received an award for having his songs played for a record amount of combined time on American radio?
Sting looks amused more than anything else.
“Oh yes, it was something like, now hang on,” the North East accent comes on thicker at some times more than others. “It was something like they worked out that if you took the amount my songs had been played and added it up, they would be playing until 2079 or something.”
He smiles. For an international superstar, he seems more aware of how odd his life is than most. Perhaps it’s that grounding of coming from a place where the shipyard should have been his final destination.
“The Last Ship is something very emotional for me. I remember those people and I remember how important those ships were – the sense of self they gave the community and the sense of dignity that work gave to people,” he says.
“It’s something that Yorkshire people understand, that sense when something you associate yourself with is taken away from you and nothing can replace it. It’s something that is devastating to a community and that is something people in Yorkshire can definitely relate to.”
It turns out it’s not just the affinity Yorkshire folk have for Sting’s story that means he has a special place in his heart for the Broad Acres. He tells me that he worked in a pea packing factory in Hunslet when he was a youngster. At first, I think he’s winding me up, then he pronounces Hunslet without the ‘h’ and I realise he’s telling the truth. Probably.
“When I was 21 I worked in a frozen pea factory, 12 hour shifts, seven days a week for seven weeks. I worked there to raise money for the bass guitar. I had to shovel frozen peas from a conveyor belt into a freezer all day. I can’t eat a green bean to this day,” he says.
It’s a triumphant return to the city, then. “When I’m in the theatre watching the show I move around quite a bit, I like to sit with the sound guy so I can make sure the music sounds right and I often sit in the pit with the musicians. I think I make them slightly nervous,” he says.
“It’s been lovely that the musical has had a fantastic reception. There’s always an element of anxiety whenever you put any artistic project out there, you hope people will understand it and enjoy it. This is a difficult subject, the story of the shipyards being closed down, but it’s a passionate and entertaining and emotional piece of work. It’s very special to see people laughing and crying and to understand the serious message behind the play.
“I’m very proud of it.”