Review: Message in a Bottle (Peacock Theatre)
A new collaboration between ZooNation choreographer Kate Prince and Sting plays in London this season
The best way to describe Message in a Bottle is a strange meal in which individually the elements charm, but by bringing them together the qualities of each are left diminished. A hip-hop-led dance piece about the global refugee crisis to the music of Sting sounds like a bizarre experience and at some point you have to question whether the combination is truly cohesive.
In her programme notes, director and choreographer Kate Prince promises at the minimum "bloody brilliant music" and regardless of your opinion on Sting's work, this is delivered. At an acoustic level there is no denying the quality of the songs, which were reinterpreted for the project by music supervisor Alex Lacamoire (Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen) and Grammy Award-winning producer Martin Terefe.
Prince delivers far more than just a sing-a-long however – the choreography and dancing on display here is superb and easily the finest aspect of the production. Whether depicting the refugees' initial, idyllic delight or the desperation that accompanies war and displacement, Prince conveys the story convincingly without the need for dialogue.
It seems harsh to single out specific names when an entire cast is so strong but Nafisah Baba is a joy to behold, a lithe blur of poise and grace transfixing the audience. As good as Lukas McFarlane is, it says a lot about her talent that he looks even better when they dance together. Natasha Gooden and Tommy Franzen are also excellent and the latter's scene with Samuel Baxter is arguably the production's highlight. Watching the two of them develop a deep love during "Shape of my Heart"' is one of the few moments where music, story and choreography truly align – the effect is powerful and tantalising.
Set and video design, from Ben Stones and Andrzej Goulding, improves considerably after the interval and makes you wonder how good Message in a Bottle could be if both were a little more consistent. The geometric neon cage introduced midway through the show for incarceration scenes is visually striking, and makes one wonder why the stage was left cavernously empty throughout the first hour. During songs like "Inshallah" and "A Thousand Years" the production leans heavily on Prince's vision and the ensemble's ability.
Aside from a delightful three song burst ("Shape of My Heart", "The Bed's Too Big Without You" and "Roxanne"), there is not enough cohesion between what is happening on stage and the music. If not self-indulgent, the production certainly has the tendency to feel far more contrived than is desirable.
By way of an example, as one of the refugees struggles mentally to come to terms with her new surroundings in a foreign land, The Police's "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da" is a bizarre song to accompany the scene. Whether or not you buy into the worldliness of Sting's lyricism is irrelevant because a jaunty pop song does not convey the obvious anguish and grief the character is feeling. On too many occasions does tone feel like a second thought for Message in a Bottle to be a really enjoyable production.