Dritan Kastrati was sent from Kosovo as an 11-year-old boy to make the perilous journey and seek aslyum in the UK. He tells us his story as Daniel Perks reviews How Not To Drown:

The ensemble is all Dritan Kastrati. They are his Kosovan family; they are those who illegally smuggled him out of the country, through central Europe to the UK as an 11-year-old; they are his foster carers during his teenage years.

Except Dritan is real, a member of the ensemble and the co-writer of his story, How Not To Drown. He is the narrator through whom the audience gain context.

Drown Traverse Theatre
Dritan Kastrati, Daniel Cahill & Esme Bayley (image courtesy of Mihaela Bodlovic)

Dritan’s story is heartbreaking and all too common, families sending children away from war-torn countries to try and give them a better life. And with co-writer Nicola McCartney, How Not To Drown is intelligently, emotionally and honestly unveiled on stage.

Neil Bettles cleverly uses Becky Minto’s rotating wooden set and Zoe Spurr’s barren white lighting to emphasise the lack of love or connection in Dritan’s life. Choreography during the treacherous journey further heightens its intrinsic danger, ingeniously utilising crowd control barriers and a constant, menacing undertone from Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s sound design.

Drown Traverse Theatre
Ajjaz Awad (image courtesy of Mihaela Bodlovic)

How Not To Drown is a story of freedom, or so it seems – the escape from one country to make a better life in another. Until the social care system, the Home Office and the various foster homes become Dritan’s British prison.

It’s a story of losing home never to regain a place in the world. Sent away by his dad (Daniel Cahill), Dritan’s upbringing came courtesy of a militant man who taught Dritan how to survive. Masking education with fun, Cahill guards his emotions well to give an intentionally detached and powerful performance, especially when saying goodbye to his youngest son. Real emotion breaks through Kastrati’s impassioned narration when talking of the dead Kosovan bodies, leaving his mum (a stoic Esme Bayley) and being separated from his brother (a more passionate, fiery Cahill) after finally making it to the UK.

Drown Traverse Theatre
Ajjaz Awad, Reuben Joseph, Daniel Cahill & Esme Bayley (image courtesy of Mihaela Bodlovic)

And yet, despite its content, How Not To Drown lacks emotional impact. Plot points that should pack a punch fall flat – the one UK teacher that Dritan can look up to; the shift to third person narrative when shunting him through the asylum process; the final return to his birth country, only to find that he can’t consider it home anymore. Bettles’ direction does not deliver in these crucial moments.

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Esme Bayley, Daniel Cahill, Dritan Kastrati, Reuben Joseph & Ajjaz Awad (image courtesy of Mihaela Bodlovic)

Explaining complicated international politics to an innocent, questioning child highlights how pointless and infuriating the system is. Dritan questions why he had to leave, why he had to learn How Not To Drown, and no one can ever give him a real answer. But the emotional turmoil of his brave journey remains just out of reach, never finding its true home.

★★★☆☆

How Not To Drown is now playing at Traverse Theatre until 25 August 2019. For more information or to buy tickets, please visit the festival website.