Dritan Kastrati (centre left), Daniel Cahill and Esme Bayley in How Not to Drown. Photograph: Mihaela Bodlovic

Dritan Kastrati (centre left), Daniel Cahill and Esme Bayley in How Not to Drown. Photograph: Mihaela Bodlovic

Dritan Kastrati has an extraordinary story to tell. As an 11-year-old Kosovan-Albanian refugee, he was entrusted by his father to people smugglers to make his way by boat, train, and lorry across Europe. We know he survived because he and Nicola McCartney have fashioned a play out of his story in which he appears. But, while the piece is partly an adolescent adventure story, it also explores the dilemma of what it is like to be caught between two cultures, countries and languages.

Although we know Dritan will eventually make it, the first half of the play keeps one in a state of pleasurable suspense. It helps that his father had submitted him to rigorous tests in preparation for the journey and that the young Dritan was, as someone wryly observes, “a cocky little shit”. Even so, his ability to read the intentions behind people’s actions and to stand up to mafia men and rip-off merchants in Italy and France is remarkable.

Once he joins his older brother in Ilford and is farmed out to a succession of foster parents, the narrative loses some of its momentum, even though it makes the point that an inflexible care system needs to make more allowance for love.

The tension may wane but Neil Bettles’s production for ThickSkin ensures that the staging remains lively throughout. Played by a five-strong ensemble on a tilted, rotating platform, the piece conjures up a whole European world with the aid of simple props, such as steel barriers and the actors’ expressive bodies. Ajjaz Awad, Esme Bayley, Daniel Cahill and Reuben Joseph all impress but the real hero is Kastrati, who acknowledges that endurance exacts its price as, briefly returning to Albania, he poignantly asks: “Where is my home?”

At Traverse, Edinburgh, until 25 August.

Originally published here:
https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2019/aug/05/how-not-to-drown-review-traverse-edinburgh-festival-2019