“What if the Titanic never hit an iceberg? What if it sank for another reason?” asks a bereaved character whose fiance perished on the “unsinkable” luxury liner in 1912.
The what ifs in Ron Hutchinson’s drama explore the psychological effects of fake news spawned in the wake of the disaster, specifically the theory that the American financier JP Morgan orchestrated the sinking of the ship to kill off his enemies. It is a zany idea for a play, even if it lies on the outer realms of conspiracy theory.
Emma (Genevieve Gaunt), a young British woman mourning the loss of her beau, arrives in New York to unearth hidden facts herself and coincidentally meets a jaded newspaper hack, Molloy (John Hopkins). He promptly offers to help her in order to sell her story to the papers and early scenes alternate between their meeting and his exchanges with his editor (Lizzy McInnerny) who – again coincidentally – lost her own lover in the maritime disaster.
Under the direction of Eoin O’Callaghan, this set-up promises a corporate murder mystery as Emma and Molloy begin their investigations. A ship engineer (Fergal McElherron) speaks of structural failures in the Titanic’s design and warns: “Ask the wrong questions and you get a hatchet in the head.”
But as competent as the performances are, this play goes nowhere dramatically. Instead, it swims around in exposition, with flimsy, cliched characters and little beyond theories being spoken out loud. Its action – what little there is – feels static, almost sleepy, despite the colourful premise, and we can hear the creaks of its plot turns.
It is touching that Hutchinson dedicates the play to his grandfather, a shipfitter on the Titanic who died from injuries sustained in the shipyard. It is also ambitious in its intention to bring together the idea of fake news with psychoanalytic aspects of reality, fantasy and neurosis (Freud’s “new science” is briefly mentioned). But it does not succeed in exploring this ground with any depth or coherence, and it never becomes clear what it is ultimately trying to say.