If comedy is “tragedy plus time,” then what do you get when the equation reads tragedy plus eternity? That would be Jimmy Titanic, the marvelous one-man show that intercuts the final hours of the sinking of the Titanic with the arrival of the disaster’s victims moments later at the gates of heaven. It’s an ingenious conceit, and Irish actor Colin Hamell uses it to take his audience on a wild and thoroughly original ride.
Two young Irishmen who worked and died on the Titanic, Jimmy Boylan and Tommy Mackey, are the show’s main characters, and it is through them that we come to meet not only the other passengers and crewmembers, but also Mayor R. J. McMordie of Belfast, the editor of the New York Times, John Jacob Astor, the angel Gabriel, and even God himself. With an absolute minimum of props—really just tape on the floor and light cues—Hamell, playwright Bernard McMullan, and director Carmel O’Reilly create a vivid world populated by dozens of distinct figures, complete with appropriate accents, speech patterns, and gestures.
The opening image of Jimmy trying and failing to learn to fly with his new angel wings establishes the tone for the sequences set in heaven. The clichés of a comic version of the afterlife are trotted out one by one, but with this difference—here they form the basis of a thoroughly absurd response to the massive tragedy of the ship’s sinking. Jimmy and Tommy enjoy heaven because, as victims of a particularly high profile disaster, they have a high status there. Gabriel, like God, is portrayed according to the conventions of comedy, and his attitude towards the newly dead reveals in him the pride and entitlement of a petty bureaucrat. Yet he’s likeable, and turns out to be just the sort of soft touch that Jimmy and Tommy need to work their way into the heavenly system.
On the other side, there’s the panic that sets in as the ship goes down, and the wide variety of ways that different characters handle it. A desperate Spanish speaking father loses his life in a failed attempt to save his family, and the crew in the engine room regards the whole thing with grim determination. In one sequence, Jimmy and Tommy come across John Jacob Astor and Jacques Futrelle, passengers who, having successfully loaded their loved ones onto the life boats, retire to the library where they drink while anticipating their death.
Newspapers are available in heaven (at least if you know how to handle Gabriel they are), and as a result Jimmy gets to think through and imagine a scene at the New York Times, and another at the mayor’s office back in Belfast. In both cases, the drama of the disaster gets spun in a way that aims to protect the interests of those still alive. In a Senate investigation, Bruce Ismay, an owner of the ship, wrestles with his responsibility for the tragedy and manages to shift the blame. Overall, a strikingly wide range of responses to the famous disaster are dramatized and found wanting, with only the dignity of those who went down with the ship left fully intact. It’s a tribute to the energy, talent, and above all the craft of this team that Jimmy Titanic breathes so much fresh life into such a familiar subject. Colin Hamell is an actor to watch, and this show was an unqualified pleasure.