A Royal Treat as the Prince of Hip Hop Brings Joy to Sting the King of Pain

*** World Exclusive ***

Message In A Bottle – The Musical
Rating: *****
The Peacock Theatre
Portugal Street
Holborn
London WC2A 2HT
Tickets from £14
Ticket office: 020 7863 8222
Choreography by Kate Prince, based on the music and lyrics of Sting
A Sadler’s Wells & Universal Music UK production with ZooNation: The Kate Prince Company
6th February – 21st March 2020

I should have known this right from the start. Right from the moment the idea of a musical based around the music of Sting there should have been no doubts about its success, for as Sting himself sings in the eponymous title track ‘Message in a Bottle,’ “only hope can keep me together”.

Well I’m sure Director and Choreographer Kate Prince went into this project with a great deal of hope and faith, firstly that Sting would give his seal of approval for her to proceed and realise her vision, then for it to be written, produced and choreographed and ultimately make it onto the West End stage.

On 7th February 2020 the TV news reported on the UN Refugee Agency announcement that only 29 states offered resettlement places, with the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Sweden and Germany accepting the largest numbers of refugees. That happened to be just the second night of the Message in a Bottle musical I was at. It was quite timely as the theme of Zoo Nation’s latest show is the story of refugees. Its starting point is a village that is alive with joyous celebrations finds itself suddenly under siege. Everything changes forever. Determined and daring, three parted siblings step out on their own extraordinary adventures.

Message in a Bottle is of course the perfect title and song choice to base the show around as its theme is of “a hundred billion castaways looking for a home,” to be “rescued before they fall into despair.”

Kate Prince, Director and Choreographer, was keen to tell the human side of the international refugee crisis through dance and music, specifically that of Sting and The Police, with the main goal of humanising stories and showing empathy for a story often reported in terms of raw numbers, politics and civil war. Without a doubt she achieves that and provides a counter balance to the popular media portrayal of refugees as a problem for the UK and other nations affected, plus conflate the economic migrant situation with refugees merely seeking a safer place to go to just stay alive.

In the song ‘Inshalla‘ from the show and on his ‘57th and 9th’ album (2016) Sting sings about the refugees arriving in Europe from the war torn Middle East. Speaking with NPR’s Michel Martin in 2016, he explained: “The migrant crisis is something that isn’t going to disappear tomorrow. It’s driven by warfare in the Middle East. It’s driven by poverty in Africa. It may be driven by climate change in the very near future. So it’s not going to be something can we can hope to end tomorrow. 

I don’t have a political solution, but I feel if there’s a solution to it, it has to be grounded in some kind of empathy for those people in those boats. Because we as a species all migrate. We’re all migrants. Everyone in this country is a migrant, I’m a migrant, our ancestors were migrants. It’s not going to stop, that’s what we do.”

I was so blown away by the opening of this show that I knew within the first 15 minutes that this was a show I’d want to see again and again. Was I being a little premature? I don’t think so.

Message In a Bottle is a captivating, spectacular fusion of stunning hip-hop and balletic dance enhanced by the vibrant, outstanding music of Sting and The Police. What stood out like a giant neon lit bottle washed up on the shore was the lucid freshness of the music. It was such an unexpected joy and revelation. There’s a reason it felt like this which I won’t spoil by revealing here, suffice to say that fans of Sting and/or The Police will be in for a real treat. Even if you’re not the biggest of fans but just enjoy the big hits or some of the less well known songs you will find this riotous cacophony of outstanding music and dance to be an absolute blast. Remember, many of these songs are up to 30 plus years old but you would not have thought so watching this show. It brought back fond memories of first hearing the songs. You find yourself listening more carefully to the lyrics than you might otherwise have done in order to follow the unfolding story on stage.

It all sounded so current, so modern and all the songs were relevant in furthering the story. Where this was somewhat hard to follow visually from observing the dance alone, the lyrics helped to provide the context and meaning. The chosen songs were individually written and recorded at various stages of Sting’s careers and were never intended to form a thematic story, yet this is precisely what Kate Prince has done. She hasn’t gone for the perhaps relatively “easy” option of just creating a random story simply to shoehorn in hit songs. What’s on stage is the result of the effort (or rather pleasure for super fan Kate) in studying Sting’s extraordinary back catalogue to select the most appropriate songs to fit the story. This culminated in the curation of a wide range of songs and musical styles from the up tempo ‘Can’t Stand Losing You’, ‘So Lonely’, ‘Englishman in New York’ to the beautiful, reggae infused ‘The Beds to Big Without You’, to the more melodic, reflective, ballad songs such as ‘They Dance Alone’, ‘Fields of Gold’ and ‘The Empty Chair’. Not only that but, not surprisingly, all the big hits are there including of course a rousing rendition of the titular song ‘Message In a Bottle’ which, as with many of the songs, was gloriously acted out through hip-hop dance. It was tiring just watching the dancers incredibly athletic, thrilling, balletic movement in perfect synchronicity to the music. The range of dance styles and fleet of foot dance work dazzled and amazed in equal measure. It was simply outstanding.

There’s a part of the show where one husband is missing his wife and ‘Can’t Stand Losing You’ is playing and being acted out which was reminded me of some of the scenes from last year’s hit movie ‘Blue Story’ with a number of menacing, hooded characters on stage. In a curious way it was quite poignant and amusing to watch at the same time. The story had plenty of humour and moments to bring a smile to the face, not to mention moments of pathos that saddened the heart.

One of the key highlights was just listening to Sting’s distinctive, powerful and emotive voice enthusing his songs with a new vitality, relevance and urgency that we haven’t seen before in this format as you catch yourself listening to something that feels quite different despite having heard many of these songs for so many years. His voice truly carried the show to heights it would otherwise not have been able to reach.

Fans will have seen many concerts and TV performances over the year but never before choreographed to dance music and certainly never putting them together to form a story based on so many “bloody brilliant songs” as Prince described them, from such an extended period of time.

There are plenty of neat musical surprises too, including lots of teasers … one moment hinting at one song to come, then sharply and subtly seque-waying into a completely different song.

Sting is quoted in the programme notes as saying he was really moved by watching a workshop of the show in the initial stages pre giving the project the green light. “I was blown away by it. The response for me was very emotional not just because I was honoured that they were using my music to express something, but there was something happening at a deeper level beyond understanding.” I totally got that, particularly as someone who’s been listening to his music from The Police to the present time. I too was moved in a way I hadn’t expected. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from the evening, but it exceeded any expectations I had a hundred billion times.

 

I refer to Sting in the review title as the King of Pain after one of the songs from the Synchronicity album (1983) but if you look at a number of his songs Sting truly is the king of crafting songs of pain with the uncanny knack of imbuing them with an upbeat, cheerful melody which are often the polar opposite of their melancholy lyrical content. ‘So Lonely’ ‘Every Breath You Take’ and ‘Can’t Stand Losing You’ for instance are all sad, somewhat dark, melancholic songs really, yet their tempo is upbeat and almost joyful. When performed live these are some of the songs that get fans up on their feet dancing away. In their own way Kate Prince and her Zoo Nation production have pulled off the same uncanny trick with this musical. It’s clearly about the tragic international refugee situation yet it’s cloaked in the multi-coloured coat of a barnstorming high energy song and dance hip-hop musical. Speaking in the programme notes Prince states that Message in a Bottle is not a depressing story. It offers hope. “It’s there to uplift and inspire like all our work, because all our works is really about one thing: love. Everything comes back to love and the power of love and the healing power of love, forgiveness and acceptance. This is a piece about the strength human beings have to keep going, to find peace again in their lives despite trauma. It’s about resilience.”

I reflected earlier that within 15 minutes I felt this was a show I’d want to see again and again. Was I premature in that assessment? I think you’ve gathered by this point that it was far from that. It is currently on a 7 week run in the West End but I suspect there will be deafening calls for an encore.

Sting famously sings in ‘Message In a Bottle’ “I should have known this right from the start.” I did and I will certainly be going to see this again for ‘Message in a Bottle: The Musical’ is an exciting, complex, enjoyable and multi-layered show. ZooNation have delivered a breathtakingly stunning performance of stellar music, songs, dancing and energy that undoubtedly merits a further viewing or two. Maybe even a hundred billion!

© Tiemo Talk of the Town
Photo’s courtesy of Helen Maybanks

Links:

  1. United Nations Refugee Agency Briefing – 5th February 2020
  2. Sting and Shaggy Star at the Roundhouse – Tiemo Review – 28th May 2019
  3. Paul Simon and Sting – On Stage Together – London 02 – Tiemo Review – 16th April 2015

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