Drowntown is a show that gives “voice to the vulnerable and unheard”. It opens with Dom (Dominic Coffey), “someone trying to understand”, methodically scraping up sand on a windswept beach. Figures walk across the stage, aimless and on edge. Fifteen minutes pass with little explained – until a phone rings, “an incident” – the motley crew suddenly move in unison, forced to stay and confront an unspoken terror.
The beach is an allegory for social disenfranchisement. A liminal space between the certainty of society on land, and the terrifying depths of the ocean. The girl on the phone is Pearl, a girl calling from the depths of that sea, apparently facing problems both existential and pointedly benign. Her issues around “filling in a form” to get the help that she needs immediately contextualise all that is going on with the political reality of the modern-day welfare state.
Drowntown is therefore a rare thing: a dance show that is imbued with an excoriating political message, calling for greater social awareness. Perhaps, though, the message and the way it is expressed is a little laboured at times. “No, no I can’t swim” one character, Donald (Donald Hutera), shrieks at one point, as he is held up over the imaginary sea. Dom, meanwhile, is more blunt: “the sea cries for this clusterfuck of sorrow”.
The score (composed by John Victor) is a series of evocative tones, at times atonal rhythms evoking the windswept landscape, at other times with warm strings channelling humanity amidst the bleakness. The online medium works well for the show, with multiple camera angles and close-up shots adding a personal depth that the show might otherwise have missed. But it remains not quite as vivid an experience as could have been achieved in person.
One man laments a lost daughter, while another woman says she has lost her mother. Yet, for the most part, backstory is absent. This has a levelling effect: everyone is facing trauma and difficulty, but the reason for that is irrelevant, and the purpose of the show is not provoking any kind of judgment on that account. But at the same time the lack of historical context can leave the audience slightly untethered from what is actually going on.
A little more plot or development could hold it in place and ensure enduring interest as the gyrating forms embody their trauma at an ever more vigorous rate. But it remains an empathetic portrait of isolated people.
Drowntown is playing online until 30 June. For more information and tickets see The Barbican’s website.