The Titanic is the most famous ship in the world due to its tragic sinking in 1912 with the loss of over 1500 lives. Many of us are familiar with the story thanks to the iconic James Cameron film, released in 1997, which starred Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, but a Broadway show has been wowing audiences for years. It celebrates its 10th anniversary in the West End this year. We spoke with Lucie-Mae Sumner, who plays Kate McGowan, a real woman from the West of Ireland who boarded the Titanic in Cobh, Cork.
What is it like starring in a musical based on an actual event? You have to respect the material differently than you do with something based on history. You respect the material in any show you do, but there is a whole new level of being aware that the person you are playing went through this awful thing. They really existed; these people lived with so much hope, they thought they would all do this amazing thing on this incredible ship, but nature took over, and the tragedy was so much bigger because of those lost hopes.
Did you research the Titanic and your character Kate? Yes. I have always had a fascination with it, I think because this was essentially a man made tragedy. I think that’s why the world is fascinated because there was so much hope; it was in all the papers. It was this huge deal; there were so many celebrities on board. Then, of course, all these other people like my character, Kate, in third class, who were making that one trip that was going to change their entire lives. I’ve always read books on it and watched every documentary. When the job came up, I really hoped I had a shot at it because I wanted to do something where everything I’ve read would be relevant and inform my performance. I’ve never had that connection to a show before, so it was very special to get the part.
You played Kate before, but you are now working with a new cast. Do new actors change how you perform? I didn’t get to play Kate for very long. I was in the show for less than a month when I left because I got the lead in Mary Poppins. I didn’t feel I spent enough time with the character the first time. I was delighted when Danielle Tarento, the producer, gave me another shot. She called me my agent and asked if I wanted to play Kate for the full run this time. And I said absolutely. The first time I played Kate was in Germany, which I loved, but being able to do it in the UK and Ireland means that many of my friends and my family can see the show, which is really special and doesn’t happen when you’re abroad.
How does the dynamic change when you play the same character but with a different cast? It changes everything by having a new cast. I feel really fortunate to have done the show with two different sets of brilliant people who were all really great actors. Sometimes in musical theatre, the focus is on dancing. Sometimes it is the singing, and of course, there is a lot of beautiful singing in Titanic, but most importantly, every single one of those people in the cast is a brilliant actor. They’ve all brought really bold new interpretations, which I feel really lucky to have worked and collaborated with them on because it informs how I say my lines and how I react to them. I can’t use the same expressions or do the same thing as last time. I’m an actor who likes to be informed by what happens on the night. When someone does something totally different from one night to the next, I find that quite exciting. Having a whole new cast who are doing things that are different moved me because I get to see the show with fresh eyes again.
As you have mentioned, there is singing and dancing, but this show has a vast amount of movement in how the cast changes the space without moving sets. Was it a hard show to block? The blocking is incredibly clever in how we move around the set because the set stays almost the same, and we meld all these different scenes around it. Cressida Carré, our movement director, is a genius. She came up with a way of changing this one space dramatically every time. We go from the first-class salon to the third-class dining room and things like that without set changes. The way people move in and out of the space transforms it. I really love focusing on the stillness in this show in a way that I haven’t always experienced. I’ve done a lot of very dancey shows such as Chicago and Mary Poppins. They are very movement heavy, but in this, you get to focus on the words and the material. That is a new experience for me.
Kate is such a strong character; do you enjoy playing someone like her? I love it. I absolutely adore playing Kate; she was really strong in real life and charismatic. She persuaded 13 people to leave their hometown and come with her on the Titanic. She was very much the leader of that group. It is interesting that a woman in that time could be so persuasive, strong, and influential. I try to bring that into the role as much as I can. It’s important to remember real people and their stories.
The Irish accent is notoriously tricky for actors to get right, but yours is so good I only knew you were English once I read your bio. How did you get to grips with it? The main worry is someone coming to your show and hearing an awful accent. They can’t focus on the performance because the accent gets in the way. I’m from Northern England, and a lot of people murder it when they try to do it, so it was really important for me to get the Irish accent right. I’m very fortunate to have a lot of lovely Irish friends and spent a long time pestering my Irish friends and getting them to Voice Notes in their accents, which was really helpful. I listened to the podcast My Therapist Ghosted Me. I know Vogue Williams and Joanne McNally don’t have the right accent for my character, but just listening to them talk, hearing how their cadence goes up and down, and their attitude towards life feeds into how they speak. So, it was a lot of listening that helped me get there.
Are you looking forward to coming to Dublin and the Bord Gais? I can’t wait. I’ve been to Dublin a couple of times with other shows. I know the best place for a drink and have my favourite walks. There’ll be a few of us that haven’t been before, so I’m looking forward to showing them Dublin. It is our last venue in the UK and Ireland tour, so it feels very special, particularly playing an Irish woman, to finish it in her home country.
Will you get a chance to visit Cork and see where Kate boarded the Titanic? We have some holiday weeks coming up, and I would really like to go to Queenstown, as it used to be called. I researched Cobh and what it was like back then, so it would be special to see where she boarded.
What do you hope that audiences take away from seeing the show? I would like them to walk out of the front door of the theatre, having been given some faces and some stories to the statistics so these people are no longer numbers. It’s no longer this huge number of people that died, but they can imagine that everyone on that ship had hopes and dreams.