Monday, April 22

How Not To Drown – Oldham Coliseum

‘STOP THE BOATS’ is an easy phrase parrotted by politicians seeking the quick dopamine rush of an approving headline in the Daily Mail or Express. In the rush to demonise immigrants as criminals and scroungers, what is lost is the individual stories of struggle, heartbreak and loss that each one of the statistics actually represents. Writer Dritan Kastrati and ThickSkin Theatre attempt to redress this imbalance in perception, resulting in an authentic voice exploring the journey of one young boy through the asylum and care system in 21st century Britain.

Dritan Kastrati was an 11-year-old Kosovan Albanian, when his parents made the decision to remove him from the chaotic aftermath of the Balkan war and send him to the supposed safety and security of the UK. Kasrati told his story to Nicola McCartney and together they crafted it into a 90-minute play which debuted at the Edinburgh festival in 2019. He tells his own story onstage, aided by four other cast members (Ajjaz Awad, Esme Bailey, Daniel Cahill & Samuel Reuben) taking on every other role, ranging from Mafia boss to playground bully, as the action moves from Tirana to London via Bari, Milan, Paris and Brussels and the horror of a small boy trying to find a place of safety is examined.

It is a powerful exposition, made even more convincing by the detail that only a survivor of such an ordeal could supply being liberally littered through the script. The Albanian code of ‘Besa’, ‘Keep the Promise’ enables young Dritan to come through his journey, allied to a fighting mantra urging ‘Forward, Forward, Forward’ that stops him from drowning, both metaphorically and literally. The story splits into two distinct halves, the journey to reach the UK juxtaposed against the exploration of Dritan’s experience within the UK care system once he was forcibly separated from his brother. Whilst the earlier half is more undeniably dramatic in content, it is the petty bureaucracies of ‘The System’ which really shock once Dritan reaches the UK. An examination of asylum care as a business was eye opening, and the protections that are designed to maintain safety are often seen to act as a suffocating blanket to required love and emotional support. For a story with such a serious message, humour is woven throughout, demonstrating this trait is ubiquitous and universal, regardless of race and creed. My only real critiques of the script where it dragged somewhat in the early stages, telling the history war in former Yugoslavia through unnecessary exposition and the later story felt somewhat unfinished with Dritan not finding a real home either in the UK or on his eventual return to Kosovo.

An eye catching contribution came from the creative team with Director Neil Bettles and Designer Becky Minto fashioning a large, square, wooden raft upon which the action is centred, tilting and moving to great effect. Choreographer Jonnie Riordan along with Director Bettles achieved superb physicality in the performance of the actors, able to create wildly differing scenarios with the dexterity of their movement and the use of a few minimal props. ‘How Not To Drown’ is an authentic and original story told with honesty and a wonderfully detailed eye, it should be required viewing for politicians seeking to make capital out of the plight of those in genuine danger.

I cannot end this review without making personal reference to the fact that ‘How Not To Drown’ will be the last touring show that will perform at the beautiful Oldham Coliseum, their enforced closure being due to take place next week. At a time when government is supposed to be ‘levelling up’, the decision to kill this theatre by removing its central funding is both crass and indefensible. In addition to possessing one of the most evocative interiors of any theatre in Britain, it is a valuable community resource and employer, maintaining the place of a proud northern town on the national theatrical scene. It is a shabby decision by a shabby government, and I sincerely hope the uproar which greeted the announcement of its demise, results in the saving of this architectural and theatrical gem.

Reviewer: Paul Wilcox

Reviewed: 23rd March 2023

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★