ZooNation: The Kate Prince Company
The Lowry, Salford
July 27-29, 2023. 1 hr 50 mins
Subtlety is not Kate Prince’s strong suit: energy is. Her story-telling show Message in a Bottle, set to the songs of Sting, is an assault of high-octane dance and technical wizardry that never lets up, and brings ecstatic audience reaction at the finish.
The Lowry and Birmingham Hippodrome are co-producers with Sadler’s Wells and Universal Music UK, so it’s got big resources behind it. The show first launched at Sadlers Wells in January 2020, so it’s one of those that would have been here sooner but for Covid. Now we finally get the tour: Canterbury, Salford, back to London, then the world.
The dancers are extraordinary and the style is a fusion of almost everything that’s been done through movement on a stage. In most numbers, the stage is full of action and for that, Kate Prince and her team of choreographers deserve every credit they get. It’s narrative dance with all the technical bells and whistles of a concert.
The story is of an imaginary family in a village of a distant land whose peaceful way of life is shattered by civil war. Mother, father and three teenage children flee across the sea to find safety: they’re refugees, they’re separated and each has to find their own way to a new life.
That sounds simplistic, and it is. Loss, survival, love and hope – all the kind of things we’d like to think could bring happy endings to the world’s real migrant problems – are presented as an uplifting fantasy. We all applaud, even though we know real life isn’t like that.
Sting’s songs weren’t all written to bear on issues like these, and the concept is carried by a cycle of them with relatively little linking or additional music, so some are pressed into service when their words don’t all carry the narrative, or because their general feel fits more than anything else. That’s no problem if you’re a fan, of course, and I guess a lot of people are. You’ll be wowed by the production’s sheer virtuosity, and enjoy the ride.
There’s certainly nothing obscure about the story-telling: the idyllic rural opening, as lovers are united and a community rejoices; the horrors of conflict and what it does to people (Fragile accompanies that, and Don’t Stand So Close To Me becomes a soundtrack to rape); the desperate flight from horror and the fate of migrant people – Message in a Bottle itself is a metaphor of boat people, themselves “washed up on the shore”.
The second part of the show finds a different story for each of the three young siblings as they each finally escape their statelessness: each has a happy ending, some more realistic than others. One finds a welcoming community, one gets to the Big Apple (Englishman In New York and I’m an alien) and finds love there, and one explores the seamier side of life (The Bed’s Too Big Without You and Roxanne, followed by So Lonely in a technical tour-de-force as the dancers duet with their own video doubles) in a sub-story that is a creation in itself. The character finally finds love with a reprise of Fields of Gold – first heard in the long-lost outset. There’s an apotheosis to assure us that hopes have been, after all, fulfilled, and a triumphant ensemble presentation of They Dance Alone.
It’s make-believe and it’s brilliantly done, and in one way that’s all you need for a thumping success.
Info and tickets here