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Review: How Not To Drown (Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh)

Dritan Kastrati and Nicola McCartney create the piece about a young asylum seeker

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Ajjaz Awad, Esme Bayley, Daniel Cahill, Reuben Joseph and Dritan Kastrati
© Mihaela Bodlovic

The posters for How Not to Drown show a split face, a man and a boy with the tag line "The true story of an 11-year-old asylum seeker arriving in the UK, told by the man he is now."

That is exactly what the play is; its power springs from its absolute authenticity. Dritan Kastrati, who wrote the piece with Nicola McCartney and stars in it alongside four other actors, was sent as a boy to England by his father, who feared that the war in their native Kosova would lead to his death.

That journey, through the hands of smugglers, on perilous boats and suffocating lorries, takes up the first half of the story; the tale of Dritan's fortunes at the hands of various foster carers and his ultimate return to a country where he no longer felt he belonged, takes up the second.

Designed by Becky Minto, it is fluently and brilliantly told – the cast performing on a tilted oblong of slatted wood that changes angle as it becomes a room or a boat or a lorry. In the hands of director and choreographer Neil Bettles the action has a fluid, watery quality. Scenes melt rapidly into one another, with the actors deftly switching from character to character as the story progresses. They all take turns at playing Kastrati – "but I'm the real deal", he reminds us.

While the fears of his journey are not underplayed, it is Kastrati's separation from the love of his parents that is the work's real theme. He encounters hostility, but it is the unkindness of bureaucracy that cuts the deepest. He longs to be seen, to be listened to. Too often, he is palmed off with a minimum of care and an absence of affection. Yet individuals can make a difference: a temporary family who treat him like their own child; a teacher who inspires him to act.

It is in those small details that How Not to Drown is so telling and so inspirational. Here, standing before us, is a boy who grew into a man who grew into a playwright because people finally listened to him and showed a little kindness.