Mission Drift – The National Theatre Shed

Heather Christian in Mission Drift at the NT Shed. Picture: Robert Day

Heather Christian in Mission Drift at the NT Shed. Picture: Robert Day

Playing at The NT Shed, London until 28th June.

Mission Drift exploded into the UK in 2011 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where it blew critics and audiences away. So convincing was its force that those who hadn’t seen it – including me – fell upon the news of a London transfer like ready-made disciples. Two years later and our long cherished hopes are being not just matched but beaten. Mission Drift is a gorgeously kitch act of modern spiritualism – a search for the soul of American capitalism.

Spanning decades, the story of original Dutch settlers Catalina and Joris Rapalje entwines with that of recession victims Joan and Chris, a waitress and cowboy dealing with the consequences of their forefathers’ (and mothers’) ambition. The real Rapaljes – who have a million descendents in modern day America – are transformed into immortal embodiments of growth and expansion; they are there when the Civil War tears through the West, when the atomic bomb rips through the world and when bankers bring society to its knees.

The ambition of the TEAM more than meets that of these contemporary gods. Mission Drift is a rich collage of theatrical tricks. Dance, movement, music, text all come together to create a world of condos and showgirls, a desert where beer oils the land that water abandoned and dancing lizards guard florescent bone yards. It is a landscape where classic myths meet modern urban legends, geographical and moral frontiers are breached and the tacky streets of Las Vegas become altars of sacrifice.

It’s almost too big for The Shed’s intimate stage and could easily be a mess, but the structure is as sound as the artistry is brazen and it holds together beautifully. Partly this is because the script is full of clever references to biblical lore that we can’t help but recognise, a recognition that creates an immediate framework.

But mostly it’s because Heather Christian’s soundtrack is so strong it forms an unbreakable backbone for the rest of it to hang off. Ballsy, bluesy, sexy and morally ambivalent, she is also Miss Atomic Christian, the ringmaster of this circus. She invokes spirits and taunts them, cradles humans and then laughs at them.

There’s something ecstatic about the music that pulses through Mission Drift. It moves with the expansive momentum that marks Catalina and Joris’ rampage; with its souring harmonies it conquers us as they conquered America.

In fact it almost takes over, with the threat always present that this will just become a concert. But Mission Drift is more than that. Silence is played with as much as cacophony and there is a strand of objectivity within it that cools ones tendency to over emotionalise.

Moreover director Rachel Chavkin has crafted something delicate and human out of these swirling zeitgeists, particularly within Amber Gray’s broken Joan and Libby King’s disappointed Catalina. This cast are dexterous singers and movers but most importantly – in the midst of this theatrical jamboree — they make us believe and care about them.

Mission Drift gets under the skin of American capitalism, while dazzling with its expansive ambition. With this pulsing piece the TEAM has given the capital its most politically potent musical since London Road, and stormed the NT Shed’s castle.

Honour Bayes

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