Review: Message In A Bottle

October 26, 2023

Joan Sutherland Theatre Sydney Opera House  October 27, 2023

Reviewed by Sophie Kennedy White

It’s a bold move to create a dance musical about the desperate plight of refugees with the music of pop star Sting but Kate Prince’s courageous stage production does it spectacularly.

Moved by that shocking image of a young Syrian boy on a beach in 2015, Prince was compelled to tell the refugee story though dance. Message In A Bottle is an imagined story about one family whose lives are turned upside down by civil war, they flee only to be confronted with a series of impossible choices in order to survive. Message In A Bottle is a universal refugee story of loss, fear, hope and love.

With his vast catalogue, the music of Sting means different things to fans depending on what decade you grew up in – seventies kids adored The Police, Sting’s solo career of the eighties and nineties was a complex essay of musical experimentation that stayed true to the pop ideology of ‘hit making’. It was during this period that some of Sting’s most acclaimed music was created and Price has selected these tracks for the show.

The genius of Sting’s music is its ability to be reinterpreted and he’s been quoted as saying he has ‘always made his music available.’ The latest incarnation by Zoonation to reinterpret the music moving through dance, resonates loudly with the current conflicts in the Middle East and around the globe with an estimated 35 million refugees now displaced.

By giving the nod to the talented choreographer and director, Sting has embraced the opportunity to offer his music to gently open up the dialogue of displacement, through a modern telling of the refugee story.

Choreography is an art I don’t fully understand but watching this show its clear – Prince is one of the best. A product of the MTV generation, she has been heavily influenced by the music video, which tells a two-minute story and this is reflected in twenty-eight musical numbers in the performance.

To see how they have worked the music of Sting together is quite a feat. We are reminded of just how beautiful his compositions can be, at times I was so mesmerised by the music and what was happening on stage that I got a bit lost in the story.

The dancers were astonishing – a mega-mix of many street styles from break dance, hip-hop, locking, popping interpretive to ethnic, the show had a good pacing it was well choreographed and directed.

There was a lot to admire and some incredible visual scenes – like the lifeboat of ‘Inshallah’, a song I don’t know very well but worked within the chaos of sound, light and movement.

Message In A Bottle Photo: Lynne Theisen

The use of space and lighting was clever, utilising digital silhouettes dancing in the background and mixed media stage projection. There was a few scenes that really worked in the show – the prison poles – the life raft on the water – the desert sand falling from a giant plastic orb hovering above the stage.

Multiple Tony Award winner Alex Lacamoire, best known for his work on hip-hop sensation Hamilton did a fantastic job as Music Supervisor. He said ‘all the songs we know and love – sometimes need an extra touch for emotion’. One of the cleverest things they did was the mini musical motif taken from the title song ‘Message in a Bottle’ that he ‘shifted it down two octaves with fourth chord taken out’.

It was a well-developed show, with just twenty-three bodies on stage they were able to achieve much in many different scenarios. The Dancers were unflappable – stand outs – Natasha Gooden, Lukas McFarlane and the great Tommy Franzen.

The company was able to catch the emotion and connect with the audience via dance – in the same way the opera music can sometime spark emotion even if you can’t understand what language they are singing in – Message in A Bottle was able to tap into a sixth sense beautifully.

There were a couple of scenes that made me think about the refugee experience and feel strongly about the ideas of displacement and losing your identity,

It’s no secret that Sting has held strong beliefs about justice and humanity, appearing for Amnesty International benefits and Live Aid – his song ‘They Dance Alone’ (Cueca Solo) is a protest song from his 1987 album ‘Nothing Like the Sun’. The song makes reference to mourning Chilean women dancing with photographs of their loved ones who disappeared under the Dictator Pinochet’s brutal regime which killed thousands of people between 1973 and 1990.

There is substance to this story as a whole but I felt it needed a bit more. The final song ‘They Dance Alone’ embodies a strong sense of loss and they didn’t really play to that. The end scene was upbeat and I felt the meaning got a little bit lost.

For the music fans the performance was like listening to a live Sting song book. The crowd went wild for it and if you weren’t a fan of contemporary dance beforehand, this would be the show to make you a convert. Powerful, moving and a lingering message, great show.


What: Message In A Bottle
When: 25 October – 29 October 2023
Where: Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Price: From $89.00 + booking fee

A Sadler’s Well & Universal Music UK Production, Based on the Songs of Sting, Choreography Kate Prince

Message In A Bottle Photo: Lynne Theisen