Review: The Jungle, Playhouse

Immersive theatre done right in a completely reconfigured Playhouse, The Jungle is thought-provoking beyond belief

“No one wants to stay here”

Following on from an enormously successful run at the Young Vic last year, The Jungle has made the move to the Playhouse Theatre in one of the unlikeliest but most significant West End transfers in recent history. Joe Robertson and Joe Murphy’s play was born out of their experiences in setting up the Good Chance theatre in the Calais refugee camp that gives it its name and accompanied by an extraordinary (re)design of the space by Miriam Buether, becomes a genuinely unforgettable theatrical experience.

Buether’s design recreates the Afghan restaurant that was part of the camp where audiences can sit at the table (which becomes a thrust stage) surrounded by the heady scent of warming spices and baking bread. It’s a useful reminder that even in the midst of a crisis state, life has to continue and food is an enduring common bond. And this anti-doom-and-gloom approach is symptomatic of The Jungle. No tragedy porn here, but rather a portrait of flawed humanity – people doing good, people screwing up, people just trying their damnedest in face of a shameful international emergency.

Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin’s production balances these two essential elements so well. There’s much humour laced through many scenes, a dry wit sliding around scenes that keep spirits as high as they can get. And there’s a clear-sighted frankness about the horror of the situation that was allowed to build up, and the difficulties that come in trying to help out with such a complex mass of issues. The trials of a series of British volunteers have an initial feel of comic relief but along with narrator Safi (an excellent Ammar Haj Ahmad), they prove a crucial entry point into our collective ignorance about the multi-faceted problems experienced by such a multinational grouping.

This format means that so many of these experiences are able to be expressed here, naturally some are more fleeting than is ideal but it is a powerful starting point. And the lightness of touch that comes with the humour and with the use of music (composer John Pfumojena delivering beautiful work) means that the tone never dips into preachiness, one never loses sight of how compelling each individual story is, how vital each concern, how unforgivable a blanket response is. Alex Lawther’s gauche Sam with his dreams of urban planning, Ben Turner’s restauranteur and Pfumojena’s Dargur refugee stand out in a truly committed ensemble, but it is the whole thing that is truly magnificent and far from easily forgotten.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Marc Brenner
The Jungle is booking at the Playhouse Theatre until 3rd November

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