How Not To Drown

Aug 5 2019 | By More

★★★☆☆     Human drama

Traverse Theatre (Venue 15): Sun 4– Sat 24 Aug 2019
Review by Hugh Simpson

How Not To Drown at the Traverse is an involving and humane piece of theatre, detailing stories that need to be heard. However – in theatrical terms – problems of structuring cause its impact to be diminished.

ThickSkin and the Traverse, with the Tron and Lawrence Batley Theatre, are responsible for giving us the story of how Dritan Kastrati came here as an 11-year-old Kosovan asylum seeker. Kastrati himself (who also acts) and Nicola McCartney have written the script from his own experiences both before and after arriving in the UK.

Esme Bayley, Ajjaz Awad, Dritan Kastrati, Daniel Cahill and Reuben Joseph. Pic Mihaela Bodlovic

Neil Bettles’s direction makes good use of Becky Minto’s ingenious rotating-plank set, and the movement of the cast verges on the breathtaking, particularly in the first half-hour. However, this is definitely subject to the law of diminishing returns, with one particular piece of visual trickery being used at least once too often.

The action also becomes decidedly more prosaic. At one moment Dritan, dealing with the bureaucratic arms of the UK state, can even be seen literally jumping through a hoop.

This slackening of tension is undoubtedly mirrored in the script, with what could have been a taut, absorbing and utterly vital hour’s worth of theatre being over-extended. It seems unfair to criticise what is, after all, someone’s life, but in purely dramatic terms the sections dealing with the inadequacies of foster care and education are too long.

morally superior

The point that the UK government and its representatives (largely because of what they fail to do) are in no way morally superior to Albanian gangsters, is a convincing one.

However, the length at which it is made tends to undermine rather than reinforce it, with some of the characters approaching the stereotype – which will, sadly, make some more ready to question their reality.

Ajjaz Awad. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

This lack of rigour is also present earlier on, with some exposition about Kosovo (or Kosova, as the Albanian-speaking characters call it) that is longer than necessary for dramatic purposes.

The closing minutes undoubtedly pick up the pace again, and there is considerable energy to go with the human interest. Dritan Kastrati does more than justice to his own story, which is not always the case when actors present their own lives. The other performers – the versatile Ajjaz Awad, the impressive Reuben Joseph, the comically talented Esme Bayley and the dignified Daniel Cahill – flesh out the story and provide the necessary impetus.

Despite the caveats about the structure and editing, this is an accomplished piece of theatre, that gives voice to an experience that – like many other aspects of the contemporary political scene – seems peculiarly absent from the mainstream stage at the moment. All concerned deserve credit for bringing it to life; it is unfortunate that a lack of focus means this is merely interesting when it could have been compelling.

Running time 1 hour 30 minutes (no interval)
Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge St, EH1 2ED (Venue 15)
Sunday 4 – Saturday 24 August 2019
Daily except Mons. Times vary – see website for details.
Tickets and details:

Traverse website:
ThickSkin Theatre:
Instagram: @thickskintheatre
Twitter: @thickskintweets


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