Mission Drift, National Theatre Shed, London – review

“Good evening,” drawls our sultry blonde hostess, Miss Atomic, advancing on the audience with a microphone in her hand. “Grab your drink . . . we’re gonna be here for a while.” She is talking about the scope of the show, rather than its running time. Mission Drift, a wildly original piece of theatre – part exotic cabaret, part history lesson, part economic morality tale – covers 400 years and the breadth of America in its quest to pin down the fatal lure of the American dream. Constantly shifting focus and style, in keeping with the elusive frontier, the show interweaves two love stories, mythological journeys, the brash neon fantasy of Las Vegas and the bitter reality of recession, stirring them together with gorgeous, seductive songs to create a mesmerising brew.

The Brooklyn-based company, the TEAM, researched the piece in Las Vegas (living in a foreclosed home while they were there) and it is this extraordinary city that determines the mood, style and subject of the show. They tell the story of Joris (Brian Hastert) and Catalina Rapalje (Libby King), a Dutch teenage couple who arrived in America in 1624. In the TEAM’s hands, the couple take on mythological proportions: symbolically reincarnated over the centuries, they criss-cross the continent, permanently young, permanently expectant, driven by a burning thirst for expansion and the promise of the next frontier.

Their epic journey finally sets them down in 21st-century Vegas, where they hit the buffers. Here, their story bumps up against that of Joan (Amber Gray), a waitress laid off in the recent economic downturn, and Chris (Ian Lassiter), a desert-dwelling native American displaced by the city’s expansion.

As their two stories fuse in the 2008 financial crash, the company poses the question that underpins the show: “Why a right to endless growth?” It is, of course, a critical question of the moment. You might say the show takes a long way round to tell us that we are facing a fundamental economic and social crisis, and it does ramble a little. But it does more than tell: it digs at why the pursuit of growth is so endemic, so rooted in American lore. And it laces the enquiry with soulful songs written by the world-weary Miss Atomic (Heather Christian) and with dry wit and infectious physicality from the excellent cast (directed by Rachel Chavkin). The result is a show that is deliberately as beguiling and elusive as the promise it explores.


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