Friday, 22 June 2018

Theatre review: The Jungle

I originally had a ticket to see Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson's The Jungle at the Young Vic last year, but was too ill to go. But in the welcome recent trend of acclaimed shows that don't necessarily look like instant commercial smashes getting a West End transfer, I got a second chance as it's moved to the Playhouse for a summer run. And in many ways I was glad to have seen it here instead, because while it's not unusual to see the Young Vic host an immersive staging, there's something particularly impressive about Miriam Buether's design transforming a Victorian West End proscenium arch into the makeshift Calais refugee camp that was always in the news a few years ago. Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin's production starts at the end, with the French authorities evicting everyone and bulldozing the camp, before going back to the beginning.

The multilingual Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmad) serves as translator to much of the camp, and so is a natural narrator for Murphy and Robertson's fictionalised version of the Jungle's story, which begins when the Arab Spring sees a sudden increase of refugees heading from Africa and the Middle East with the ultimate goal of reaching the UK.

Thousands end up ringfenced next to a motorway, and as they realise they could be there for the long haul start to get organised, leaders Salar (Ben Turner) and Mohammed (Jonathan Nyati) encouraging the different nationalities to cooperate. When a group of well-meaning British volunteers arrive to help, maths whizz Sam (Alex Lawther) comes up with a plan not only to build makeshift wooden houses incredibly quickly, but also to organise the Jungle into neighbourhoods named after the migrants' various countries of origin. This is also how Buether's design is organised - I was sitting on a cushion in "Iran," still more comfortable than the Playhouse's regular seating - with the entire stage and stalls turned into Salar's restaurant and community focal point, and the dress circle called Dover, the cliffs that are the refugees' untimate aim.

This is a serious and sometimes devastating play - notably when the flirty relationship between Beth (Rachel Redford) and Okot (John Pfumojena) leads not to a romantic subplot, but to him taking her through every step of his traumatic journey so far - but also, for the most part, joyous. Because it's the story of a community building out of disparate people with only the bleakest things in common, and the need for a common humanity in the face of adversity. But in the most keenly political element of a play that by its very nature couldn't be anything else, it's also a story of how that very humanity is seen as a threat by those in power.

So the Jungle might have been a dangerous slum but the authorities increasingly seem to think it might be too nice, and its very existence could encourage more refugees to seek asylum. In a video coda from the area today, we see how since the Jungle's destruction French police have relentlessly moved migrants on to avoid another site springing up. The Jungle is a ruthless critique of the French and British governments' treatment of the vulnerable, but it's also an entertaining and memorable evening that makes the audience part of a very human story.

The Jungle by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson is booking until the 3rd of November at the Playhouse Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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