Hell Ship: The Journey of the Ticonderoga (fortyfivedownstairs) – theatre review

Accompanied by a lone cellist (Thomas Veitch) and dressed in period costume, Michael Veitch weaves a deeply personal and tragic tale with aplomb. It is one he wrote with Peter Houghton. In August 1852, Michael’s great great grandfather, James William Henry Veitch, was the surgeon on board the emigrant clipper Ticonderoga when it sailed from Liverpool to Port Phillip Bay with 800 on board. What confronted him was severe illness and death on a massive scale. It started with a single passenger and spread like wildfire. The culprit was typhus.

After a haunting introduction by his cellist son, Michael Veitch enters from stage right. He assumes the guise of his 74-year-old great great grandfather, who has been called back into medical service to attend to a sick boy who is lying on his side in bed, burning up with fever. As Veitch addresses the lad, the former gets caught up in his vivid memories … and that is how the story unfolds. The youngster is merely a shape in a bed, but a most effective theatrical device, nonetheless. During the course of his performance, Veitch also plays other characters with different accents.

Hell Ship is a yarn borne of hope, rife with anguish and heartbreak. Mind you, there is also respect and love. After presenting us with facts and figures about the Ticonderoga, Veitch gives us names and situations that his great great grandfather confronted, making us fly on the wall listeners to the horrors of what went down. We ride the waves with him, metaphorically speaking, waiting … hoping for the tempest to subside. That is the power of the word pictures so adroitly woven by a man on top of his game, who can shift the mood at will.

The production features a number of cello interludes, sound effects and graphic representations on the whitewashed brick wall of the theatre as Veitch’s tale of woe unfolds. The set is most alluring – furniture and objects that transport us to back to the time when the action is set, complete with candlelight. Veitch is mesmerising and polished – descriptions of circumstances faced tumbling out of him at pace.

Hell Ship: The Journey of the Ticonderoga is a time capsule, eerily appropriate at this time, as we emerge from lockdown and continue to confront the ravages of a pandemic, which has itself been hell personified for so many. It is playing at fortyfivedownstairs until 28th November, 2021.

Other reviews you might enjoy: