Cattle class: Cargo @ArcolaTheatre

Cargo at the Arcola Theatre is a thrilling and evocative account of the plight of refugees with a twist. A delicate blend of fact and fiction, the piece by Tess Berry-Hart conjures up a dystopian world that just might be around the corner for us... And this makes it a powerful statement on how both our values as a society and how we view refugees.

The box office kindly suggests that as it is ninety minutes straight through, you might want to have a drink with you beforehand. Most people in the audience seemed to go for beer. But we have been having a heatwave in London. So I went for water and guzzled half of it before even getting to the downstairs theatre.

Walking into the studio space transformed into a giant shipping container. Max Dorey's inspired design makes you feel as if you are the cargo. And as the show begins an usher slams the door shut and you're plunged into darkness.

This is the second outing to the theatre where the production puts you in a confined dark space and then switches off the lights. Theatre at the fringe in London this summer is testing audiences for their levels of claustrophobia. The only thing that might make it more authentic would be to shut off the air conditioning. Although I was grateful for that not happening...

The darkness is an opportunity to view yourself as one of the refugees. The heatwave had me thinking that I would most likely be one of the ones who wouldn't make it. Dehydration would be the most likely cause.

The atmospherics only get you so far and the drama does start. With a mobile phone light. Iz and Joey are trying to get a signal with their mobile. But they can't at the moment. And there are others travelling with them. They want to get to France where they think they will be safe.

Through the dialogue it becomes clear that they are fleeing from a place that was once prosperous. Political division, religious intolerance and civil war have ended all that.

It isn't Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq they are fleeing from. It is Britain. The point being made is that conflict and refugee crisis could happen anywhere.

And maybe it could. Britain has had a violent history. More recently the rehetoric with Brexit has taken things up a notch. Politicians murdered and Brexiters on social media labelling those against it traitors. Not forgetting the increases in abuse to people who look a bit foreign. Perhaps they are signs of a new era of fascism we're heading into.

Which is why Cargo is so fascinating. Drawing on the experiences of refugees today to speculate on a scenario. And it will have you pondering recent events and what are the steps to a country breaking up.

The cast serve the material well. They capture the desperation of being confined within a shipping container for a limited period of time where there is no phone and no light. And each have secrets they do not share.

As Iz and Joey, Jack Gouldbourne and Milly Thomas serve as the optimistic and naive refugees. They learn that they have to do anything if they want to survive and if they want to escape. Debbie Korley as Sarah plays the more experienced refugee who knows how the system works. John Schwab as Kayffe creepily balances between being friend and foe and serving to give the story structure.

Perhaps not everything is a complete surprise in the piece. And whether you accept the dystopian future might depend on your current world view. But it certainly is a thilling and claustrophobic ninety minutes.

Cargo by Tess Berry-Hart and directed by David Mercatali continues running at the Arcola theatre until 8 August.


Photo credit: Mark Douet

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