Were you to judge it by the first five minutes alone, you'd class A Colder Water Than Here more as art than theatre. A stunning site-specific opening plays with concepts of speech and writing – perfect imagery for a multi-lingual production, with communication as a central theme. Spread across the exposed brickwork of the vaulted space, we see a swirling constellation of brightly-lit words and letters, while actors recite lyrical fragments drawn from many tongues.
The all-consuming visuals don't last for the whole hour, but there are creative flourishes throughout: waves of words evoke the sea, a cascade of letters perhaps represents water dripping down a wall. When the script proper begins, however, it falls into relatively familiar patterns. This is a story told by migrants: we learn of the perilous journey they've made, the disappointment of the life they discover in England, and the pain of remembering what they've left behind.
Yet the detail of these characters' lives deftly sidesteps obvious clichés. They haven't fled from war, or even crushing poverty, but are escaping personal demons far subtler and more complex than that. Gentle, almost incidental touches – a hint of flourishing love, the ritual of making coffee – humanise a subject that can often seem incomprehensible in scale. Overall, Matt Jones' script succeeds in reminding us that migrants are individual people, whose aspirations and motivations are as unique as anyone's.
Much of the dialogue is given over to a heavily-worked metaphor, involving water, and air, and breathing, and choking, and sinking, and blackness, and coldness, and… well, you get the idea. It turns out that here's a reason for all this – revealed during what is, on balance, a satisfying ending – but at times the repetition feels a little forced, driving out other potential stories and motifs.
The bold decision to perform in multiple languages, meanwhile, sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. At its best, it highlights the sense of isolation endured by the protagonists; one conversation, with a German-speaking people-trafficker, is a model of frustration and misunderstanding. But I'm not sure what's gained by delivering an entire monologue to the audience in a tongue very few of us will understand, and the occasional device of speaking in more than one language simultaneously made an already-complex production actively difficult to follow. That's not the only thing which confused me, either: by the end, I understood the essentials of what had happened, but I didn't quite follow how or why.
Overall, A Colder Water Than Here falls down on the storytelling. But it scores points for style, and for its often-lyrical writing, which at times resembles a heartfelt love letter read aloud on stage. In the end then – fittingly – it was all about the language for me.