The world premiere of Message in a Bottle was one of the last shows at the Peacock Theatre (in February 2020) before lockdown and – the subsequent tour having been curtailed by Covid – it has now returned with a much-changed cast but the same ambiguous message, albeit wrapped in joyful exuberance and strong performances, which occasionally reached extraordinary heights of hip-hop virtuosity.

Message in a Bottle
© Lynn Theisen

Basing a narrative of persecution and the flight of refugees on Sting’s songs has presented a fascinating challenge with a mixed outcome. On the one hand, the songs are well-known and memorable and Kate Prince’s choreography is impressively interpreted through powerful performances; but, on the other, the tale of a family (mother, father and three teenaged children) being torn apart by civil war and making their way separately towards new lives is difficult to follow in a narrative that is necessarily episodic to fit with the diverse lyrics of 28 songs. It was a struggle to identify the characterisations and the complex relationships in the roles being enacted: I still have little certainty, for example, about which performers portrayed the different family members.

The song book is exceptional, containing the most popular songs written by Sting, many of which have been re-recorded in new arrangements by Alex Lacamoire (of Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen fame). A quintet of other singers take the lead on a quarter of the songs to avoid it becoming a total Sting-fest: Beverley Knight, for example, sang lead vocals in the recordings for Fields of Gold and Invisible Sun; and veteran Jamaican singer, Lynval Golding, conveyed the sentiment of The Bed’s Too Big Without You. Sting’s lyrics always contained a message and he opined on such diverse matters as the Troubles in Northern Ireland, missing activists in Chile, the climate change crisis and shipyard closures in his native North-East England, all of which songs found their way into this playlist. There is inevitably a mismatch between lyrics written for another purpose and the specific narrative of the refugee crisis although Prince has succeeded in accommodating other songs like Every Little Thing She Does is Magic, Inshallah (which relates to the prayers of a refugee), Roxanne and, of course, the title song into her narrative framework. It’s more difficult to see how some others – Englishman in New York, for example – fit the bill.

Message in a Bottle
© Lynn Theisen

Despite the “hit-and-miss” between clarity and confusion in the narrative, Prince’s direction drives a punchy momentum through the two acts with quick scene transitions in Ben Stones’ set designs (enhanced by Andrzej Goulding’s video projections) that enabled an approximation of the lead characters’ journey (even without being too certain about their individual identities). The most impactful scenes were those of capture and abuse (in the first act) and of subsequent reunion (in the second).

Nafisah Baba – who I am guessing was the daughter, Tana – was one of the survivors from the world premiere cast and, since winning the BBC Young Dancer competition in 2017, she has quickly asserted herself as a preeminent contemporary dancer of the current generation, a status firmly cemented by this outstanding performance of uncompromising fluency in fluid, elegant movement. In the double-headed sequence of Roxanne and So Lonely, which transpires in a seedy nightclub-come-brothel, there is a moment where she casually raises one leg high above her head to rest, thus elevated, on the tubular bars of the set in a position that was apparently effortless for her but would certainly put 99.99% of the rest of us into a hospital bed. The dancing is regularly punctuated by such extreme physicality with complex B-boy routines, unifying windmills, flares and freezes, including one-arm handstands, with powerful head spins and other big power moves. The Mexican b-boy, Néstor García Gonzalez, was especially impressive with his upper body strength. The dancers were allowed to let rip in a curtain call “battle” of their chosen tricks, which had the whole (mostly unmasked) audience on their feet, joining in with this joyous celebration of dance. It was certainly an uplifting finale.

Message in a Bottle
© Lynn Theisen

The plight of displaced families is the narrative for our age and it has been a source of inspiration for artists of all kinds, not least in choreography. The Royal Ballet alone has had three ballets concerned with the refugee crisis in recent years: Wayne McGregor’s Multiverse (2016), Crystal Pite’s Flight Pattern (2017) and Aisha and Abhaya, a co-production with Rambert (2020). Message in a Bottle adds to this refugee repertoire with much to praise in terms of the popular appeal of Sting’s music and in the powerful presentation of dance but, for me at least, the refugee narrative appeared as a means to an end – creating dance to the music of Sting – rather than being the bespoke vessel for a meaningful message.   

***11