Saturday, 9 July 2016

Review Cargo

Francis Beckett experiences the lives of young refugees forced to flee their homeland and plunged into uncharted waters. 

by Tess Berry-Hart

It Could Be You

When the lights go down at the start of Cargo in the small Arcola studio, they leave us in complete darkness – not the semi-darkness we expect in the theatre – and they leave us there for what seemed like minutes, but was probably only seconds, hearing only what sounded like a vast engine. 

When at last someone spoke, it came as a relief. I was tense, and had a little of the child’s fear of absolute darkness, just as the writer and director had intended I should be. 

I had a small inkling of what it might be like to be young human cargo, trafficked in darkness from the unbearable to, if you are lucky, the merely unpleasant.

Playwright Tess Berry-Hart is also coordinator of Calais Action, which takes necessary supplies to refugee camps. She has visited camps in Northern France, and the characters in Cargo are based on the children she met there.

The twist is that her play is set in the future, and the sectarian civil war her characters are fleeing takes place not in Syria or Iraq, but England. 

It’s not such an outlandish idea, especially post-Brexit. As one of her characters says, we fear refugees because they make us realise how fragile is our own peace and comfort. It’s Iraq and Syria today – largely, as Sir John Chilcot has reminded us this week, because Britain destabilised Iraq in 2003 – but there is no reason why it should not be us tomorrow.  

It is an interesting idea, and Cargo is a very good play.  It’s not a perfect play – the story is a little disjointed, and there’s the odd moment when you think: no, she wouldn’t do that. But it tells a strong story, and the characters are real people you can believe in and care about, brought to life by four talented young actors, Jack Gouldbourne, Debbie Korley, John Schwab and Milly Thomas. 

It’s directed with earthy intensity by David Mercatali, and is well suited to the small, cramped theatre space of the Arcola’s small studio.  The action, set in a container ship in a set designed by Max Dorey, is always very close, and frequently the actors move within touching distance.

Just once, I rather regretted that.  I chose a seat right beside a vast cooking pot, not knowing it was the pot which was to do duty for the refugees’ lavatory. I discovered this when Debbie Korley made a very realistic show of emptying her bowels six inches away from me. 

So here’s a green light to rush off and see an excellent production of an intelligent play; but  take my tip, and avoid the corner seat in the front row on the left hand side, furthest from the entrance.

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