The Company of How Not To Drown. Credit Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

How Not To Drown at Theatre Royal Stratford East

Dritan Kastrati stars in this ensemble, multi-rolling dramatisation of his personal experience as an 11-year-old migrant sent by his father to Britain from his native Kosovo in the wake of its 1998 -1999 war. Placed in ‘the boat system’ to the UK, Dritan is smuggled, with others, across Europe to reach his nearly adult brother, Alfred, but finds himself once again displaced from both family and country as he moves from British foster home to foster home until he eventually returns, a stranger, to what would be called his ‘family’ and ‘homeland’; but ultimately asks whether it’s still possible for him to belong anywhere?

Sam Reuben, Ajjaz Awad and Dritan Kastrati in How Not To Drown. Credit Tommy Ga-Ken Wan.
Sam Reuben, Ajjaz Awad and Dritan Kastrati in How Not To Drown. Credit Tommy Ga-Ken Wan.

Dramaturg and playwright Nicola McCartney adapted interviews conducted over a four-year period with Kastrati about his life story. The result is dramatic but somewhat lopsided and a little muddled. The production sketches an angry and heartfelt story of loneliness, frustration and dislocation of a young boy as he comes of age without the language to express himself and is held in limbo from affection by the care system. With the volume of shrill and simplistic takes on asylum deafening us in the wider world right now, this human story of a child’s life offers an opportunity for nuance and compassion. Kastrati and McCartney illuminate some powerful insights into the danger and lawlessness of the region he escaped which still bears the trauma of genocide and unresolved conflict.

Kicking off a national tour (after a pre-pandemic debut at Scotland’s Traverse Theatre) at Theatre Royal Stratford East (a theatre with the stated aim of staging hard-hitting stories) How Not To Drown is not subtle. Kastrati’s first-person account is rightly filled with pain and rage and touches on potentially profound themes of identity, attachment and expression. But it veers towards the polemic and soapy with its broadsides against fostering. Some of Kastrati’s accounts are tragic (even if thankfully not quite as harrowing as one might expect) but are left unexamined and single-sided. The first-person nature of the story-telling results in diminished character development for anyone but the star/author, which is a shame because there is greater richness to be had. The fact that this is Kastrati’s first play (and with a co-writer) is not unnoticed. There are hints at other material that could be built out into greater works as he develops as a writer. But he is a fine and visceral actor who, along with the rest of the cast, provides committed performances.

Becky Minto’s set design and Neil Bettle’s direction uses literal barricades and an unlevel platform to strong effect – both practically and as central imagery. There is a something both a little too public-service/agitprop about this production (for my taste) in the telling of an important, personal story but it also shows greater promise in its explorations of universal themes of family and longing. I could see it developing into an ITV drama and bringing a significant audience with it. My plus 1 was more moved by it than I was and felt its invitation to empathise was urgent. Especially with a reasonable ticket price, it feels like good value for a visually strong and moving show.

3 stars

Review by Mary Beer

Award-winning theatre company, ThickSkin, returns to the stage with an action-packed, highly visual production telling the painful yet uplifting true story of an 11-year-old unaccompanied asylum-seeker.

“I don’t know why my Dad let me go, especially when he knew how dangerous, how hard it was… I was too young, too weak to make this journey. I wouldn’t have sent me… He wouldn’t have sent me unless there was a reason.

In 2002, in the turmoil after the end of the Kosovan War, Dritan is sent on the notoriously perilous journey across the Adriatic with a gang of people smugglers to a new life in Europe. He relies on his young wit and charm to make it to the UK. But the fight for survival continues as he clings to his identity and sense of self when he ends up in the British care system.

How Not to Drown shares a story of endurance for a kid who wasn’t safe or welcome anywhere in the world, performed by an ensemble cast starring Dritan Kastrati himself.

Commissioned by ThickSkin and Lawrence Batley Theatre.

Written by Nicola McCartney & Dritan Kastrati
Director & Movement Neil Bettles
Movement by Jonnie Riordan
Design & Costume by Becky Minto
Composition & Sound Design by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite
Lighting by Zoe Spurr

Ajjaz Awad
Esme Bayley
Daniel Cahill
Dritan Kastrati
Sam Reuben

ThickSkin and Traverse Theatre Company supported by Theatre Royal Stratford East present
Written by Nicola McCartney and Dritan Kastrati
Directed by Neil Bettles

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