There’s not quite a happy ending to this asylum seeker play. Some conclude with the individual’s arrival in a utopian UK – which they’re more than entitled to do so, I am not disparaging those – but How Not To Drown is tense and on edge until the very end, especially when you consider Becky Minto’s sloping wooden set of which our protagonist almost falls off at the start.
That protagonist, and our narrator, is Dritan Kastrati (who also stars in the play), a man from Kosovo who, as an 11-year-old, is sent unaccompanied in the direction of Europe. The majority of the remaining cast all have their turn playing the young Dritan while the present day version watches on, and it’s one of the many clever artistic decisions involved in this ThickSkin production, as a child swept up in the heat of the moment silently consents to what is happening to them, Dritan now responds for him with “I understand”. Hindsight is powerfully poignant and sorrowful here.
It’s endears us to Dritan, and Kastrati and Nicola McCartney’s transparent, honest and accessible script does so too – one laden with expletives throughout, but doesn’t quite get in the way of a Dritan who, at least to begin with, tries to find hope and optimism in amongst all the conflict. He regularly repeats the line that “without family, you are nothing”, as well as the Albanian attitude of helping strangers. An added tragedy to the hindsight is just how quickly that attitude crumbles, and gives way to a more defensive stance as Dritan starts his journey to Britain.
Even when he arrives – which is by no means the end of Dritan’s story – the underage child has to contend with what he so damningly describes as “hotel foster care”, an emotionally taxing experience which never grants him respite or pause. Having seen a few asylum seeker plays over the past year (such as The P Word and The Boy With Two Hearts), there’s almost an inadvertent implication that – save for the unspoken fact the Home Office could knock at any moment – the constant drive to forward instilled in those making such a perilous journey disappears when they’re at their chosen country. In How Not To Drown, Kastrati proves that’s very much not the case, as migrant children still have to be on their guard against patronising social workers, restrictive and unloving foster parents and racist school bullies. “Moving forward” is another phrase repeated across the play – even at its end, at which point it becomes a shameful comment on how the UK treats those fleeing to our country for safety.
The difficulty in Neil Bettles’ fast-paced directorship is that the cockiness and confidence in the face of such unfathomable adversity comes about suddenly, explained by way of a flashback to life advice given by his tough loving father (Daniel Cahill). I don’t dispute the likelihood of Dritan thinking of his family as he ventures towards the UK, but the idea of this past pep talk establishing a permanent and abrupt character development comes across as hard to believe.
On the whole, however, Bettles gives the script the urgency it so rightly demands. It’s visceral and unflinching in its physicality, as the company twist and turn on a revolving stage (Bettles also co-choreographs the movement alongside Jonnie Riordan). The many fight sequences are particularly striking and convincing, Zoe Spurr’s lighting design is suitably harsh, and the use of metal gates to denote barriers and entrances – whichever those in authority require – is superbly smart in its simplicity.
It’s only 90 minutes, as well, but it’s certainly punchy – literally, at times – and maintains its importance almost four years after its Edinburgh Fringe debut.
How Not To Drown is now playing at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 11 February.
British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted, captioned and audio described performances will take place on 9, 10 and 11 February respectively.
It will then tour the UK, finishing at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh on 1 April.
Production Images: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch this show for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.