Theatre review: How Not To Drown, Traverse Theatre | Crocodile Fever, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

How Not To Drown is a powerful portrait of a child refugee's voyage to - and first days in - Britain. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic
How Not To Drown is a powerful portrait of a child refugee's voyage to - and first days in - Britain. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic
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Theatre partly exists as a safe space where we can walk a mile – or hundreds of miles – in someone else’s shoes; small wonder, then, that refugee stories have recently become a key element of British theatre, as a form of resistance against the idea that refugees and asylum seekers are sinister “others”, whose stories are, and should be, beyond our ken.

How Not To Drown, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Until 25 August * * * * *

Crocodile Fever, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Until 25 August * * *

How Not To Drown – co-written by former Kosovan child refugee Dritan Kastrati and playwright Nicola McCartney, and co-produced by Thick Skin Theatre with the Traverse, the Tron, and the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield – is in one sense just another refugee story. Brilliantly told by a cast of just five actors, including Dritan Kastrati himself, the play charts the decline of Dritan’s part of Kosovo into post-civil-war devastation, and his father’s heart-wrenching decision to send 11-year-old Dritan on the perilous journey to join his brother in England. It takes us through the journey itself, and then, perhaps most tragically, through Dritan’s sometimes shocking experience at the hands of the British “care” system.

That Neil Bettles’s superbly physical production accomplishes all this in just 90 minutes is impressive enough, in terms of sheer dramatic and storytelling skill; on Becky Minto’s tilting platform set, the story of Dritan’s journey is thrillingly well told, as is every other element of the narrative. What is truly stunning, though, is the richness of detail that helps us understand the intense culture of family loyalty and community from which Dritan comes, and what he therefore has to bring – in wisdom, strength and love – to our much more atomised and cash-driven society.

READ MORE: 5 of the best theatre shows so far at the Edinburgh festivals

Kastrati’s disciplined, often humorous central performance is at times almost unbearably moving, as he moves into a world in which he will finally belong everywhere and nowhere; and together with Daniel Cahill as his father and others, Esme Bayley, Ajjaz Awad and Reuben Joseph, this company forms a team whose magnificent work should be widely seen.

Family loyalty is hardly the byword in Meghan Tyler’s explosive Traverse debut play Crocodile Fever, which fully embraces the Irish-absurdist theatre-of-blood genre pioneered by Martin McDonagh, and recently taken to new heights by David Ireland. Set in Belfast in 1989, it begins with the truly pathetic image of dowdy sister Alannah – brilliantly played by Lucianne McEvoy – patiently removing tiny specks of dirt from the rim of her sink; and when her wild rebel sister Fianna (an equally brilliant Lisa Dwyer Hogg) bursts in, fresh from eight years in jail at the hands of the British, it soon become clear that compulsive cleaning has become Alannah’s only consolation, as she sacrifices her life to look after their paraplegic old Da, who roars from upstairs.

As the girls drink their way through the evening, it soon emerges that the Da has been an abusive patriarch, fiercely hated by both his offspring. After a brilliant first half of sparring, boozing, lamentation and singing between the two sisters, the Da (played with terrific presence with Sean Kearns) slithers downstairs to join the party, and Tyler’s play loses the run of itself in female violence for which it fails to create a context that works. The whole event blazes with energy and talent, though, in Gareth Nicholls’s fast-moving production; and there can be no doubt that even if this play roars slightly off track, Meghan Tyler’s work will be back on the Traverse stage in the blink of a crocodile’e eye.

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