Message in a Bottle at Peacock Theatre
I don’t want to spend my time in hell
Looking at the walls of a prison cell
I don’t ever want to play the part
Of a statistic on a government chart
Art, dance and storytelling collide in Message In A Bottle. Performed to the music of Sting, the production tells the story of a community living in a country far away. The group are affectionate and loving towards one other. They dance in the sun and gently encourage Nafisah Baba and Onyemachi Ejimfor to express their mutual romantic feelings (Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic/Fields of Gold); young love is blossoming and everything seems idyllic.
Things change abruptly when the music stops, the lights flash and the audience hears gunfire (King of Pain). A militant group dressed entirely in black has taken over, violence ensues and the women are cornered, harassed and one is even kidnapped after she fights back (Don’t Stand So Close to Me).
This is an uncomfortable but important number, where the female performers perfectly illustrate the feeling of frozen fear in the face of violent threat. Dark, inky lines run on the animated screen at the back of the stage until the entire backdrop is black. A globe-like fixture hanging from the ceiling opens to spill sand onto the stage, signalling that time is running out. In the face of adversity, the group decide to escape their dire situation in the hopes of finding a better tomorrow (Invisible Sun).
The waves (which one can see chopping and moving on the backdrop) are fierce, and at one point viewers are shown the harrowing sight of lifejackets floating alone on the water. Eventually the group gets to their destination, only to be greeted by a high fence, a prison-style refugee camp and more officials dressed in black (Message in a Bottle).
The songs here are perfectly chosen to tell the story. There is no dialogue, but the performers are skilled and physically expressive, able to convey everything they need with their facial expressions and movements. The set design is exceptionally artistic and well thought-out. There are some incredible sequences where the dancers perform with shadows, sometimes moving together and sometimes separately. The lighting is perfectly timed and signals important changes in mood.
Message In A Bottle mixes hip-hop, contemporary and ballet-like steps to create jaw-dropping sequences. The dancers spin on their heads, walk on their hands, and do running leaps and backward flips, but equally impressive are the isolated dances and loving duets. There is a real sense of affection between the performers: they really do seem like family. Every look, hand movement and step is laced with meaning and serves to move the story along. This is a piece of performance art, but it is also much more than that.
With news of desperate refugees fleeing oppressive regimes in distant lands those in the UK find it hard to picture, this important production highlights why the West needs to support and help these people – because they are people, with families and loved ones, who have been through hell to reach safety and are then treated like criminals.
Message In A Bottle is a brilliant tale of awe-inspiring human resilience in the face of unimaginable hardship. Fans of hip-hop, contemporary dance and Sadler’s Wells will enjoy it for its performance value, but everyone, regardless of their knowledge of the genre, should watch it.
Photo: Lynn Theisen
Message in a Bottle is at Peacock Theatre from 29th September until 17th October 2021. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.