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Message in a Bottle (Peacock Theatre)

Message in a Bottle (Peacock Theatre, until October 17th 2021)

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Ever since a throaty version of Roxanne was performed in Baz Luhrmann’s  2001 movie Moulin Rouge! accompanied by a steamy tango it has been clear that Sting’s music is perfect for creative dance interpretation that breaks down barriers.

Following its premiere last year, Message in a Bottle returns to the Peacock Theatre with breathtaking choreography inspired by the musician’s songs, twisting them (occasionally in a physically literal way) into something that feels fresh without losing the dynamism of the originals.

Last year the run was cut short by the Covid pandemic – the way the production explodes onto the stage now is an indication of the company’s vitality, determination and enthusiastic energy.

It was exactly 42 years ago that The Police scored their first UK number one single with Message in a Bottle and now it is utilised as a timely parable that stirs the emotions as much as the iconic original sounds did.

Kate Prince and her electrifying dance company ZooNation use Sting’s music and lyrics as a springboard to an eye-popping hip-hop, ballet and contemporary dance journey which follows a story of passion, family ties, loss, love, life, belonging, community and hope.

And those spirited, tireless dancers are incredible. Quite how they survive for nearly two hours without collapsing is a miracle, because even when a soloist is featured the company are generally providing a colourful and athletic backdrop to enhance the portrait being painted. The only danger is that because we are drawn to different individuals we could all too easily miss something important elsewhere on stage.

No less than 27 Sting numbers are recrafted intelligently by Alex Lacamoire (with Sting offering new arrangements of familiar sounds to create a throbbing soundtrack) and while the lyrics don’t always match the narrative most of them fit perfectly – and in those that don’t one senses a knowing wink and a silent plea to stretch the imagination to cover it.

Of course the sinister watchers in Every Breath You Take here are the guards at a detention centre, Roxanne accompanies a husband’s desperate search for his trafficked wife among sex workers, Englishman in New York dares everyone who doesn’t fit in just to be yourself, and Shape of My Heart enables a stunning pas de deux between Mati and his newly-discovered true love on a distant shore.

Not only do we have Sting exploring new depths in his music through his performance of many of the songs, but guest vocalists lend their own voices to the reimaginings – a highlight being Beverley Knight’s evocative Fields of Gold, a dreamy memory of more settled and happier times.

If the reworking of parts of the musician’s back catalogue wasn’t enough to leave us breathless, then the hard-hitting contemporary story of the plight of refugees adds another dimension.

Dramaturg Lolita Chakrabarti  has skilfully woven a narrative which allows a family from “a country far away” to be representatives of a global story as three children and their parents are torn apart by civil war and we see their efforts to make it through even when faced with impossible choices. This narrative is presented with extraordinary clarity without ever being simplistic and Prince’s choreography takes up the storytelling baton.

The story of the three siblings (Leto, Mati and Tana) facing obstacles in order to survive and grow into new beginnings and opportunities has a timeless resonance. Although haunted by the past each one finds the personal strength to step into the future and discover healing.

This is a production where the entire creative, production and technical team deserve shout-outs as it is immediately clear how much work has gone into the piece, with every individual contribution counting towards the impressive whole.

The performers inhabit functional yet increasingly diverse sets by Ben Stones (there’s a terrific moment where a hanging sun starts to spill sand onto the stage as time runs out for villagers with civil war edging closer).

There are captivatingly effective video projections by Andrzej Goulding, which create various landscapes, stormy waves surrounding refugee boats and more detailed scenes such as the fencing around the camp, and there are powerful moments where silhouettes and shadows take on lives of their own, especially as Leto suffers nightmares about his lost wife in The Bed’s Too Big Without You.

There’s also some outstanding atmospheric lighting by Natasha Chivers, and Anna Fleischle’s costumes manage to capture both the colour of village and community life and dark, threatening uniforms in detainment scenes or the fizz of new settings. David McEwan’s sound design adds still more layers, whether highlighting sounds of the environment or subtle pulses in the background.

As a whole the production bends genres, cultures and expectations but the individual parts are beautiful, striking and unforgettable.

The important topical and political statement of Message in a Bottle is to send an S.O.S. to the world about the plight of the displaced and dispossessed. It would be easy to be clichéd about Prince and say that every little thing she does is magic, but the broader artistic lesson must be that creativity and imagination can break down barriers and have the power to inform, challenge and change minds – if only we would hear the message.

Yes, there is a hard-hitting message of love, desperation, resilience and survival and it’s vital that these are at the core of this piece – but it is also ok to be swept away by the satisfying artistic entertainment.

This electrifying blend of dance, drama, music, narrative and art definitely puts a Sting in the tale with a story that deserves to be told and demands to be heard.

David Guest

Images: Lynn Theisen

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