Review: Cargo, Arcola Theatre

“We’re all in the same boat…”

One of the shrewder observations of recent weeks has been the puncturing of the declamatory announcements that the UK has become impossible to live in and that emigration was now necessary after just a few days of turmoil. For when you compare that to the issues that cause immigration now, for example more than five years of civil war, huge swathes of towns and cities – even Syria’s largest city Aleppo – literally bombed out, then you see the sense of perspective that is sorely needed.

Issues like this ran around my head as I sat down to watch Tess Berry-Hart’s new play Cargo (a snippet of which I was able to see at the excellent Refugees Welcome event in May). Among the many strings to Berry-Hart’s bow is her role as a key co-ordinator for Calais Action and so this is clearly a writer who knows of what she speaks when it comes to refugees. But taking a different spin on the subject, Cargo imagines (or should that be slightly embellishes…) a near-future dystopian Britain that is the land people are trying to flee.

It’s an effective technique, one which tumbles the audience directly into the experience of those forced to flee the sanctity of their homeland. Max Dorey’s design reconfigures the Arcola’s studio into a shipping container and we’re plonked on crates and rubbish bags for seats, straining to hear the whispered beginnings of the play which opens in darkness as three young people stowaway in hope of reaching the welcoming security of Europe. But have they leapt from the frying pan into the fire, as the desperate measures they’ve taken continue to threaten them.

David Mercatali’s production for Metal Rabbit is very much alive to the sensitivity of the larger issues – uncompromising in its intensity, especially in placing his actors in such close proximity to the audience in the round, but respectful with it too, there’s nothing gratuitous in the staging. Niggling at my mind though is the sense that there’s a slight abdication of responsibility in setting the play in a fictional world when such things are happening here in this world and now and their consequences are being so disgustingly mistreated by us, by which I mean the majority of Western society.

I suspect I’m being too harsh on Berry-Hart, for it’s not her fault so many people are so obdurately awful when it comes to dealing with refugees with any measure of compassion, and the reasoning behind her writing will have doubtless been extremely thorough (there’s post-show talks every Wednesday at which I would have loved to pose the question had I been able to make it). And the acting from Jack Gouldbourne and Milly Thomas as traumatised siblings and John Schwab and Debbie Korley as their erstwhile companions is first-rate. Good theatre makes you think and I’ll tell you what, I’ve been thinking about Cargo all weekend long.

Running time: 80 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Mark Douet
Booking until 6th August

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