Message In A Bottle

Message In A Bottle
Photo credit: Johan Persson

“More loneliness than any man could bear, rescue me before I fall into despair…” There are certain bands and artists that it’s almost cool to dislike or ridicule; Coldplay is probably the best modern example, but often it ends up being a selection of groups or singers from a previous generation – your mum still loves them but you wouldn’t be seen dead even looking at one of their records. I don’t think it’s controversial of me to say that, for many people, Sting fits into this bracket. Yet if you take the time to listen back through snippets of his back catalogue (both with The Police and as a solo artist), you might be surprised at the poetry and depth in even the most pop-oriented track.

ZooNation’s Kate Prince certainly saw the potential for new creativity from his music, and from that her latest dance show Message In A Bottle was born. Running at around two hours, since its initial workshop it has become a moving story about refugees and displacement – and finding hope in the darkest of times.

Using 27 of Sting’s compositions and Prince’s choreography (incorporating ballet with modern disciplines such as hip-hop), we are taken on a journey from a peaceful land that suddenly & shockingly gets ravaged by war; the central family suffers unthinkable losses and all are forced to flee their homes, ending up being held in prison camps. After a lengthy wait, the three surviving siblings – two brothers and a sister – are each released, but will they find happiness in their new (separate) lives?

The hip-hop dance style fits surprisingly well with the music, though when you think about it the punk & reggae influences on Sting’s early tracks do tie in with hip-hop; all are forms of protest music, and as such excel at expressing deep-held emotion. The staccato in a handful of numbers and embellishments in others play into Prince’s hands – there is incredible precision in everything the dancers do, hitting every accent and making the most of every beat of the music, but somehow it doesn’t feel at all placed so the feeling behind each move is not lost. Unlike the ‘contempowaft’ that threatened to overtake the recent series of Strictly Come Dancing, each movement truly does mean something; there are very few instances of literal choreography to speak of, so audio & visual aren’t telling you the same thing – instead they combine to bring the story alive.

Some of the song choices are maybe a little obvious (and more literal than the choreography), for example If You Love Somebody Set Them Free sees the refugees being freed to a chorus of “free, free, set them free”. However, this is perhaps testament to the storytelling ability Sting has in his songwriting; some songs will naturally lend themselves to certain moments in this way. Besides, in a show with no dialogue it can’t all be completely abstract – there is a definite need for moments of clarity as otherwise you will lose sections of the audience. Dance and movement can only go so far in the telling of a story, and it’s definitely best at creating intricate moments rather than trying to tell an incredibly intricate tale.

Alex Lacamoire (HamiltonDear Evan Hansen) is the Music Supervisor for this production, and has also overseen the new arrangements of several tracks (with Martin Terefe). The brand new versions are a real treat; the piano-based (but still very intense) Every Breath You Take is definitely one of the highlights for me, as it adds a touch of unpredictability to the moment. It’s also good to have a few different singers involved, as it helps to reflect the makeup of the people performing at the time, as well as provide a bit of variety – Beverley Knight’s soulful contributions are particularly stirring.

The sparse set design (Ben Stones) allows for the choreography to take centre stage and make dynamic use of the performance space, with innovative video design from Andrzej Goulding and striking lighting design from Natasha Chivers also playing a part in setting the scene. As for the dancers themselves, the entire company pulses with energy and is led with aplomb by Lukas McFarlane, Tommy Franzen, and Natasha Gooden. Nafisah Baba is also very impressive throughout, and is especially stunning in Roxanne and the two iterations of Fields Of Gold.

This is a dance show of the highest order, showing off a wealth of pure talent whilst also telling a very human story. It’s compelling and moving from start to finish, and proves that Every Little Thing Kate Prince Does Is Magic.

Message In A Bottle
Photo credit: Johan Persson

My verdict? A compelling & human story brought vividly to life by a company that pulses with energy – Sting’s music and Kate Prince’s choreography are a marriage made in dance heaven.

Rating: 4*

Message In A Bottle runs at the Peacock Theatre until 21 March 2020. Tickets are available online or from the box office. Full details of the tour can be found on the official website.

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