Message in a Bottle – Peacock Theatre, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Music and Lyrics: Sting

Director and Choreographer: Kate Prince

At first glance, the music of Sting might not seem the most obvious choice around which to form an evening of hip-hop dance. But Kate Prince has never been one to allow herself, or her dance company ZooNation, to be limited by genre.

It helps that over the course of his career, both in The Police and as a solo artist, Sting has used many international influences and collaborations, so being in the company of his back catalogue for a couple of hours will provide a varied palette, including elements of flamenco, reggae and Middle Eastern rhythms.

To arrange an artist’s repertoire of pop numbers into a coherent narrative is no mean feat; musical after juke box musical has shown us that doing so is rarely successful. One might think that not having a spoken book might make the job harder; but Prince, along with dramaturg Lolita Chakrabarti, have proven the opposite.

For dance is all about emotional impressionism, and by using Sting’s music as a basis for a story about refugees, the fact that many of the lyrics are entirely inappropriate matters far less. Thus, the lines in Don’t Stand So Close To Me talking about a 15-year-old schoolgirl’s obsession with her schoolteacher, which clearly have no place in the story being told, wash over you, as the mood of the song is perfectly aligned with Prince’s choreography to tell a story of passion, loss, love and hope.

The music is elevated by re-recordings and remixes supervised by Hamilton’s Alex Lacamoire, with Sting and other vocalists including Beverley Knight laying down new vocal tracks.

The story itself revolves around three siblings, Leto, Mati and Tana, who leave peacefully in a small village with their parents and a supportive community. While their life is initially idyllic – Lukas McFarlane’s Leto falling in love and marrying, to the jubilation of the whole ensemble – a civil war encroaches turning lives upside down.

As the distant booms and lights suggest a war far on the horizon, the orange sun that has hovered over designer Ben Stones’s staging is revealed to be full of sand that begins to drain out. As the hourglass drains away, so times runs out for this village, and the war quickly reaches their doorstep.

From there, the siblings lose their father, killed in the attack on their village; Leto’s wife, abducted by soldiers; and their mother, when there are not enough life jackets to go around during a perilous journey across the waves.

Throughout this, there is a sense of sibling solidarity. A recurring motif has McFarlane, Tommy Franzen’s Mati and Natasha Gooden’s Tana clasping each other’s elbows, their forearms forming a tight triangle. The ghosts of those they have lost remain, too: in one moving sequence, as each sibling dances a solo, a lost family members joins them upstage, a silent and distant partner who continues to live in their memory.

Throughout all these sequences, Franzen is the fizzing heart of the show: his Mati is a cheerful, cocky teen whose ebullience helps lift his brother and sister. But as the end of Act I approaches and the family are detained in an immigration centre, the breaking of his spirit and his rebellious troublemaking results in the trio being split up from one another.

As a result, Act II forms a triptych of stories as each sibling eventually emerges from the refugee centre to start life in a new country. Gooden, whose character is clearly the baby of the trio, ends up in the company of a group of green-clad hippies, who help assuage her nightmare memories of the civil war.

This is followed by Franzen, the village boy lost in an unfeeling, heaving metropolis. Sting’s Englishman in New York, originally about Quentin Crisp but just as comfortably describing anybody who does not fit in, retains Branford Marsalis’s soprano saxophone work, the brightness and clarity of which is a perfect expression of Franzen’s dance style.

Franzen’s story is immediately followed up with a beautifully romantic pas de deux with Samuel Baxter, the duo performing a balletic call-and-response as Mati finds his true love. It’s a heartening lead in to a much darker phase, as elder brother McFarlane is found to be tormented by visions of his ravaged country and the wife he lost.

From a haunting scene in which the bed-bound widower dances with ever-disappearing shadows of his wife thanks to Andrzej Goulding’s haunting video projections (to The Bed’s Too Big Without You), McFarlane’s Leto descends into drug use, and a sleazy red light district. Here, to the strains of Roxanne, he finds a woman who reminds him of the wife from which he was separated, and the possibility that he, too, may gain the happy ending afforded to his siblings.

It all adds up to a beautiful story, told with a clarity and joy that cannot fail to win the heart. And, as with all Kate Prince choreography, from her work on shows such as Everybody’s Talking About Jamie to her body of work with her own ZooNation company, it is full of genre-defying combinations of hip hop, ballet and contemporary dance, and an ensemble that manages to dance in perfect synchronicity with one another, while always retaining individual character.

Just about the only negative in this show is that the songs are all so memorable, so ingrained in the collective psyches of a generation, that like me you may have to endure audience members behind you singing along, except in a slightly different key and tempo to the one on stage. Let them. The spectacle on stage is more than enough to grab the attention and not let go until well after the final encore.

Continues until 21 March 2020.

The Reviews Hub Score

Moving, genre-defying narrative

The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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