Theatre Review: Message in a Bottle at the Peacock Theatre

Star choreographer Kate Prince collaborates with pop star Sting to create an outstanding dance piece.

Message in a Bottle tackles the hot topic of the global refuge crisis and the many challenges it poses.

In an evening which ably demonstrates Ms Prince’s artistic genius, we are confronted by a series of well-crafted, often haunting, dance tableaux set to Sting’s music. If this were not enough, Tommy Franzen emerges as a dancing superstar.

Refugees are a sad bi-product of human history, but the troubles in the Middle East have swollen their numbers to levels not seen since the Second World War.

The UN estimates that some 70 million people have been displaced, and millions of those have risked perilous conditions to seek asylum in the West.

This piece reminds us to take stock of the individual human lives that lie behind these enormous numbers.

Message in a Bottle

On a beach in Greece, the first port of call for many refugees, Kate Prince was sitting listening to Sting’s music when she had an idea. His songs tackled previous political crises (the Cold War, Northern Ireland, Chile), why not use them to say something about what is going on today?

She met Sting at a London hotel and pitched the idea to him – the glorious result is Message in a Bottle.

London audiences have previously appreciated Kate Prince’s dance pieces Into the Hoods and Some Like it Hip Hop. Here they get a chance to glimpse her true genius. This is a much more ambitious work straddling major political and human themes brought together in a way that is awe-inspiring.

At times this stretches her company Zoo Nation to its limits, and some of the dancers seem most comfortable when they are on more familiar ground. But not all of them.

Tommy Franzen is simply outstanding. He has honed his talent, and taken such complete control of his body, that his speed and elasticity seems beyond human – more like a Marvel comic superhero.

Time after time one is drawn to him on stage, although Samuel Baxter rises to the challenge in a touching duet with Franzen.

The story Zoo Nation dance is an all too familiar one, set to different Sting pieces.

The touching humanity of an ordinary community is captured by Fields of Gold before it is suddenly ripped apart by war – King of Pain and Fragile. In a well-executed set piece, Don’t stand so close to Me, we see appalling violence to women and children perpetrated by hooded, spectral, figures.

Message in a Bottle

The only option is flight, beautifully rendered in Inshallah – “as the wind blows, growing colder, against the sad boats, as we flee , anxious eyes search in darkness, with the rising of the sea.”

The empathy that comes from watching the suffering of our fellow humans is made easier by avoiding the conflicts of race and religion which so often are the backdrop to what initiates flight.

There are many dark moments, and shocking reminders, not least of the many women who are forced into prostitution – Roxanne. But there are also some touching and beautiful scenes, including the happy finale. They Dance Alone – “one day we’ll sing our freedom…and we’ll dance.”

Apart from Franzen, we certainly get joyous dancing from Natasha Gooden, Kino McHugh and Annakanako Mohri, and above all from Daniel Phung.

Annie Edwards successfully pushes the boundaries on disabled performance and Ajani Johnson-Goffe’s breakdancing is a joy to behold. The staging is impressive, especially the use of video and lighting.

Many will be attracted by Sting’s music but the thought-provoking evening’s triumph belongs to Kate Prince and Tommy Franzen.

Message in a Bottle is at the Peacock Theatre until March 21.
Call 020 7863 8222 for tickets.

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