Traveling on cruise liners — which even 15 years ago seemed as dated as the 1920's and 1930's when liners were at their most glamorous — has become increasingly popular, whether at the five star or the jolly holiday-camp at sea ends of the market.
Live entertainment is a major feature on cruise ships, and theatre at sea is now big business. Performing for expiates, reminding them of Shaftesbury Avenue when in Singapore or Siam, was a major money-spinner for the late Derek Nimmo, who toured small-scale productions around the Middle and Far East. Nowadays its as easy — and more comfortable — to perform on cruise ships, especially as the up-market end of the industry has all the elements of old-world luxury that make an ideal backdrop to Noël Coward cabarets or excerpts from period plays.
Cunard is a historic name when it comes to liners and both its major ships — the QE2 and the Caronia — have theatres that attract well-known performers. Currently steaming home from the Mediterranean, the Caronia has been hosting a theatre-themed cruise with a group of American theatre enthusiasts and performers, Theatre at Sea.
This is an experience organized by the Theatre Guild of America, a society of theatre supporters founded in 1919 and which has found there to be a major market for combining traveling by sea and seeing well-known actors and singers perform. Among the theatrical celebrities appearing on the Caronia are Millicent Martin (British, but now resident in America) and Maureen Lipman — very British, especially when doing excerpts from her Joyce Grenfell show. Theatre as an art form is as old as Western civilization and continues to resonate down the centuries: Euripides' Ancient Greek classic The Bacchai is being performed at the National Theatre in London. Most Mediterranean cities have Greek and/or Roman theatres, and there were two found at Pompeii: the major one is still used for concerts and, rather incongruously, Frank Sinatra gave one of his numerous "farewell" performances there in the remarkably well-preserved Roman auditorium.
The Greeks and Romans considered theatre an essential part of any settlement or colony as well as a basic amenity in cities back home. Over 2,000 years later, the British and Americans clearly feel the same way, which is why their cruise liners — in essence, little floating colonies with the dress codes, manners and elegant way of life reminiscent of the colonial era — all have a theatre on board, where singing, dancing and acting are all an essential part of the life of the ship.
Shakespeare may have said that "all the world's a stage," but sometimes so's a ship.
—By Paul Webb Theatrenow