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Message in a Bottle Message in a Bottle. Photo: Helen Maybanks

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Message in a Bottle

Choreographed and directed by Kate Prince
Music and lyrics by Sting
Sadler’s Wells at Peacock Theatre, London
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Published on February 20, 2020

When it was first announced that Kate Prince and her hip hop dance company ZooNation were creating a new work using the songs of Sting, the match seemed odd. However, on re-hearing Sting’s long litany of hits, in superb new arrangements here by Alex Lacamoire of Hamilton fame, you realise that the gap isn’t that wide. So much of that phenomenally successful songbook with which he, and before that The Police, conquered the world were steeped in a reggae beat, perhaps the father of these street vibes. Spirits in the material world, If you love somebody set them free, Englishman in New York are all cases in point.

Prince’s shows like Some Like it Hip Hop or Into the Hoods have been hugely popular with audience and critics alike and regularly tour the country, bringing new audiences to dance.Into the Hoods was the first hip hop dance show to transfer to the West End.

As well as using street dance as her canvas she’s very wedded to “loads of story” as she put it in a recent interview. What’s interesting however about this vibrant, funky show is that it’s at its best when she takes her foot off the narrative gear and narrows down instead on emotional interconnection in numbers such as Walking on the Moon or in two achingly tender love duos, one straight in Fields of Gold and one gay in Shape of My Heart. The acclaimed breakdancer Tommy Franzen shines in the latter and, as is usual, steals the show.

Jukebox shows, be they musicals or dance pieces, struggle with the Mamma Mia problem. How do you sew together incredibly familiar songs without making the audience groan? Prince hasn’t helped herself here by also adding another element, A Grand Theme, in this case the recent refugee crisis. Noble and all as this is, it can make for some clunky results at times.

Sometimes the great songs get bent too far out of shape to prevent some serious cognitive dissonance for those of us who grew up with them. Don’t Stand So Close to Me for example, that anthem to school room passion, becomes the sound track over which frightened refugees are terrorised by a hooded militia. Not sure I’ll recover.

The ‘story’ centres on a family in some village in a country far away whose idyllic life is brutally disrupted by war. They face displacement, persecution, a stormy sea passage and having to make impossible choices to survive. This is all very emotive and current but at times just too weighty for the quite limited emotional vocabulary of breakdance. That genre does youthful jubilation and cocky bravado like no other but struggles on a wider palette. The result is that virtuoso displays of breakdancing, great and all as they are, abruptly jolt the narrative line rather than enhancing it. The universal message of the piece about survival and hope is in essence bland and it’s not helped here by a design which makes it look like Cirque du Soleil does Gap advert.

It is Sting’s great songs which do the bulk of emotional heavy lifting here, and they are why it will succeed internationally, but the hope is that its success will help Prince springboard to more abstract work. She has an entertainer’s ability to connect with audiences and she rallies some impressive dancers who will draw in both the hip hop and ballet crowds but she now needs to push the boat out a bit more.


Message in a Bottle Photo: Helen Maybanks

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