Message in a Bottle, Peacock Theatre

After attending Message in a Bottle, the new Sting-inspired dance-theatre show from ZooNation, I ran to board the cruise I’d booked months earlier, and was contemplating what I’d seen when the ship capsized in a storm, casting me into the oceanic depths. If you’re reading this you know your favourite theatre critic survived, having washed up on an Island the length of a tube carriage. Being a committed hack, I filed my review by bottle, and I hope you get to read it while this show’s still a thing. Regardless, I’d be grateful if you’d sent a search vessel, plotting a radius around 2 days drift time from a position roughly 18 hours sailing from Southampton, heading toward the Azores.

While we wait for the theatre show based on the seminal Bruce Willis album, The Return of Bruno, there’s this curious placeholder that cobbles together a narrative based on a broad selection from the Police frontman’s back catalogue; the hits you know – “Walking on the Moon”, “Brand New Day”, “So Lonely”, and the ones you don’t – “King of Pain”, “De Do Do”, and later lute-inflected works with musical friendly themes like love, the environment, spiritual rebirth, etc.

It’s hard to reverse engineer the show and discern which came first – the picture book plot or the playlist, but one has to admire the team that listened to the entire Sting songbook looking for lyrical fragments that could act as narrative cues. It’s a project that could only entice the most committed Police fan, but someone did it, and from that act of self-sacrifice, comes a story told without dialogue, with just the maestro’s rearranged tracks (with vocals from the man himself and a female artist giving agency and voice to the lady characters) prompting the transition from one scene to the next.

Keeping track of the plot, amidst the on-stage gyrations, dance solos, body swings, and back bends, requires a measure of concentration. In the absence of characterisation, or language (other than that of the body), you’re left to infer that the burgeoning relationship of two young and limber people is disrupted when their rural idyll and dance-centred community is ravaged by some form of catastrophe.

Following whatever it is, gangs of hooded undesirables stalk the land, and arrive to take the women so, we infer, they can be used as sex slaves. Those not selected are interned in some kind of camp, and from there the seeds are sown that allow the central male character to contact others to aid his liberation – cue the title track, and for him to escape and go look for his love, who, you’ve guessed it, is located in the gang’s seedy red light neighbourhood. Cue, “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic”! Sorry, “Roxanne”.

Not all the songs match their assigned moments with precision. Is “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” a strong enough lyric to dramatise a rape threat? But for the most part there’s cohesion between songbook and interpretive prancing. As it progresses, it becomes strangely hypnotic, even trance inducing, and though this could prompt the minds of those less enamoured by the sub-genre of dance-theatre to wander off, said brains are guaranteed to visit some very tranquil places.

Billing it as a ‘masterpiece’ as the Peacock Theatre have done on their website may be over selling it a touch, but the audience I attended with were mesmerised and got to their feet at the close, impressed by Kate Prince’s vibrant and energetic choreography, coupled with the slick projection and lighting effects that make this a colourful and ultimately uplifting spectacle.

Now please send help, I’m down to my last crate of Jaffa Cakes.

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