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Message in a Bottle. Photo credit Lynn Theisen
Message in a Bottle. Photo credit Lynn Theisen

Message in a Bottle: Dance Review

Home » Reviews » Message in a Bottle: Dance Review

According to dramaturg, Lolita Chakrabarti’s programme note, Message in a Bottle, (the Sadler’s Wells dance show, based on the music of Sting) tells the story of one family, living in ‘a village in a country far away’ whose lives are torn apart by civil war. Their three teenage children ‘undertake a perilous journey to safer shores’, their plight intensified when each becomes separated from the others.

It’s as well to read these notes beforehand, given that (for the opening half of the show, at any rate) Kate Prince’s choreography fails to mark out a clear storyline. Certainly, we can see this is a tale of refugees – human trafficking, cruel detention, sexual abuse, brutal and corrupt border guards – but the opportunity for profound emotional engagement is blocked by an insistence on ensemble set pieces, with the result that the refugees remain an anonymous mass.

Message in a Bottle. Photo credit Lynn Theisen
Message in a Bottle. Photo credit Lynn Theisen

The jukebox musical is a major theatrical phenomenon in the twenty-first century. Its archetype, Mamma Mia, premiered in 1999. Love it or loathe it, Catherine Johnson’s script skilfully constructs a plot around quirky characters and awkward situations on which to hang a barrel organ load of ABBA’s greatest hits. In effect, Message in a Bottle is a jukebox dance show yet, whereas Johnson’s story is deliberately lighthearted, Chakrabarti’s deals with some of the most pressing and profound injustices of our time. Literally thousands of lives have been lost attempting to cross the Mediterranean into Europe. If your choreographed representation of this ongoing horror does not move your audience at least to the verge of tears, your creative work risks being judged trite, perhaps even offensive.

The young dancers themselves are to be exempted from this criticism. Full of energy and athleticism, their movement is acrobatic, well-synchronised and often graceful.

Post-interval the storytelling improves. “The Bed’s Too Big” and “Roxanne” (with the aid of some outstanding video projection and lighting) present a powerful and moving account of a young man – a continent away from the woman he loves – seeking solace through a desperately inappropriate liaison.

“Englishman in New York” provides the soundtrack for a charmingly danced triumph of same-sex love over prejudice. In these two pieces we see something of what might have been. The human heart responds not to mass migrations, but to the unique perils faced by irreplaceable individuals.

Message in a Bottle. Photo credit Lynn Theisen
Message in a Bottle. Photo credit Lynn Theisen

We are, of course, reminded throughout of what a fine songwriter (and singer) Sting is (he’s not here, by the way, it’s a prerecorded soundtrack). A few numbers are cover versions, deliciously delivered by Beverley Knight (“Fields of Gold,” “Invisible Sun,” and “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free”) and Lynval Golding (“Bed’s Too Big Without You”). Alex Lacamoire has written some lustrous new arrangements.

The young troupe gets the rousing ovation their tireless efforts have earned, but the whole remains somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

Message in a Bottle is at The Lowry, Salford from 27-29 July 2023.

Read our interview with Message in a Bottle director and choreographer, Kate Prince.

Written by
Martin Thomasson

A winner (with Les Smith) of the Manchester Evening News award for Best New Play, Martin taught script-writing at the universities of Bolton and Salford, before becoming an adjudicator and mentor for the 24:7 theatre festival. Over the years, in addition to drama, Martin has seen more ballet and contemporary dance than is wise for a man with two left feet, and much more opera than any other holder of a Grade 3 certificate in singing.

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Martin Written by Martin Thomasson