This work was distinguished by the power of its performance, some choreographic originality and an abundance of familiar music: all well and good if it had not been for a narrative structure that lacked clarity. The idea of setting a story about a refugee family to the songs of Sting was inevitably an enforced marriage of his diverse lyrics with a narrative for which they were never intended.
The outcome was something akin to musical theatre but without live singing. Instead, the cast often mimed simple actions to represent the lyrics and no matter how much care was taken in the sequencing of the songs, the flow of these words rarely suggested a coherent story. During the show, I had only the vaguest notion about the breakdown of a family through some form of enforced, authoritative intervention being represented on stage and it was only when I read the brief synopsis of events in the programme that I had a fuller understanding of what had been intended.
The recorded soundtrack encompassed all the familiar songs by The Police and by Sting – 27 of them altogether – but re-recorded by their author in new arrangements by Alex Lacamoire (of Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen fame), supported by a number of guest vocalists (including Beverley Knight who led on three of the numbers). The perennial, hummable excellence of pop classics such as Roxanne, Walking on The Moon, Every Breath You Take and the title song translated well for this choreographic purpose and Kate Prince oversaw the creation of several outstanding capsules of dance even if they didn’t gel together for dramaturgical purpose. Although some of the song lyrics knitted into the prevailing theme – notably Fields of Gold, Invisible Sun, Inshallah and, surprisingly, Englishman in New York, other lyrics were incongruous against the seriousness of the dramatic intent (De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da being the most obviously out of place).
The design elements were generally serviceable, realising specific aspects of each song such as the schoolgirl costumes for Don’t Stand So Close To Me; a brothel for Roxanne and the vertical bed for The Bed’s Too Big Without You (a similar image to one recalled from ZooNation’s Into the Hoods). The neon-light cage that is introduced to represent detention midway through the second act was the most striking device, mixing set design (Ben Stones) and video projections (Andrzej Goulding).
The large cast is outstanding and their collective unity was always impressive. ZooNation stalwart and former So You Think You Can Dance favourite, Tommy Franzen provided a charismatic central presence and his romantic duet with Samuel Baxter to Shape of My Heart was an alluring performance highlight. The acrobatic, hi-energy fizz of Baxter was the new “find” of this show. Former BBC Young Dancer, Nafisah Baba was always notable for the pantherine, fluid grace of her movement and a hat-trick of former reality TV dance competitors came in the form of Lukas McFarlane, a winner of Sky TV’s Got to Dance when aged just 19. The involvement of McFarlane, Franzen and Lizzie Gough (another So You Think You Can Dance veteran) as Prince’s assistant choreographers brought a strong commercial edge to the hip-hop and contemporary dance.
The plight of refugees and displaced families is an international narrative for our age and understandably it has been a source of inspiration for artists of all kinds, not least in choreography. The Royal Ballet alone has had three ballets concerned with the refugee crisis in recent years: Wayne McGregor’s Multiverse (2016), Crystal Pite’s Flight Pattern (2017) and Aisha and Abhaya, this year’s co-production with Rambert. Despite all the assets that this latest new work brings to an audience – and there are many – it adds little to any artistic representation of the suffering and unrest of the international refugee crisis. For this confused viewer, that particular message remained in the bottle.