Review - The Jungle at the Playhouse Theatre
It is so easy to feel disconnected from the world when we experience it from such a distance, watching the news on screens and scrolling through tweets simply exacerbates the sense that the world has no effect on you, nor you on it. A watershed moment during the European refugee crisis in 2015 was the photograph of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose drowned body washed up on a beach. It shocked the world and humanised the topic. Joes Murphy and Robertson’s vital play The Jungle also does just that, giving a voice and a story to a handful of the thousands of migrants who lived in the infamous Calais camp.
Informed by their experiences from running a theatre at the camp, the two young playwrights have chronicled the desperate, hopeful stories of the camp’s residents in what is a thoroughly affecting piece of theatre.
It’s West End theatre like you’ve never seen; the Playhouse has been completely remodelled to replicate the immersive set of the original Young Vic production last year. The stalls have become the café of Afghan refugee Salar (a temperate Ben Turner), the seats replaced with cushions and benches at which we some are served soup, rice and beans.
From the academics escaping violence in Aleppo to children fleeing for a better life, Murphy and Robertson expertly craft each emotive story, reminding you of this tragic reality. Running across motorways, hiding in railway tunnels, trekking across deserts just for the possibility of a better life.
There is also a conflict of culture. There are clashes in politics between mostly proud men from across the Middle East, but it also culminates in an explosion of hope, dance and song - including a couple of rousing renditions of “Glory, Glory Man United”. It may seem trivial to point out, but it’s perhaps the trivial details like this which remind you how focussed on getting to the UK these people really are. They are willing to risk their freedoms and their lives night after night to break into the back of a lorry and at the very least try for a better life. It’s unfathomable.
Stephen Daldry’s relentless production manages to make you like a helpless onlooker at the camp. The action takes place all around Miriam Buether’s incredibly authentic set, with actors weaving in and out of the audience, but there are more theatrical moments, like an intense monologue from Okot (a superb John Pfumojena), one refugee who tells us why he tries to cross the Channel to Britain every single night.
The play also highlights the role of the (mostly) insufferably middle-class English volunteers who felt they ‘just had to do something’. While at first it seems like they simply wanted another feather in their cap – like Sam, the Eton student who sees the camp as an excellent opportunity for a housing project. But to be fair, all five stick around for months and their urgency about the crisis is clear. (And an awkward Alex Lawther as Sam cements his place as one of the most exciting young talents around.)
While every effort has been made to recreate the set for the Young Vic, there is an addition: the dress circle has been opened up and renamed the ‘Cliffs of Dover’. They loom over the action with two screens relaying some of the action live. Just like many of us during the actual events, they are so close to the action, but never quite as involved.
Robertson and Murphy do well to avoid the play coming across as preachy, they let the audience feel by simply telling the story. This does stray slightly towards the end as the audience is played a clip from a volunteer currently working in Calais, but even so, it goes to prove just how current this issue still is, and why you need to see this play now.
The Jungle tickets are available now.