Mark Ludmon reviews Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson’s The Jungle after its transfer to the Playhouse Theatre
Providing a home for up to 8,000 refugees at its height, the “Jungle” in Calais came to represent the mammoth challenge facing Europe from refugees fleeing conflict and upheaval in Africa and the Middle East. Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson’s unforgettable play The Jungle explores the realities of life in the camp and what drove people to risk their lives to travel thousands of miles to end up on the English Channel seeking asylum in Britain.
Just as some of the British media used the Jungle to heighten fears of refugees, the play reveals what the camp came to mean for the people who passed through it. Its popular name may have conjured up a primitive image but the play reminds us that it was originally “Dzhangal”, an Afghan Pashto word meaning “this is the forest”, reflecting how it was a crucible of different races, cultures and religions co-existing in one place.
Murphy and Robertson, who established the Good Chance Theatre in the camp, celebrate how these highly disparate groups overcame historical enmities to live together to create a community with its own churches, mosques, school and restaurants. Tensions sometimes erupt in violence but community leaders are shown to have it under control. Despite the writers being two young men from Yorkshire, they are not afraid to tackle the impact of British “do-gooders” coming to help at a time when some in the camp did not feel they were needed. While the volunteers end up providing vital support, the play flags up how colonial intervention by Britain and other European countries has been a factor in the instability of Africa and the Middle East that led to the current crisis.
We have a cross-section of volunteers – all white – from two 18-year-olds, Alex Lawther’s intense Etonian and Rachel Redford’s passionate bundle of outrage, to the more experienced heads of Jo McInnes and Dominic Rowan and Trevor Fox’s ageing hippy seeking to atone for being a poor father. But the play is primarily the story of the migrants who lived there. Ben Turner stands out as Salar, the owner of the Jungle’s main restaurant who fights his deep-seated anger over the destruction of his native Afghanistan to become one of the camp’s leaders and peace-makers. As well as acting as narrator, Ammar Haj Ahmad’s Safi is a Syrian academic who captures the mix of hope and loss in being a refugee far from home. Mohammad Amiri is engaging as the 15-year-old Norullah, forced to grow up as he repeatedly seeks to slip into Britain, while John Pfumojena is heart-breaking as the traumatised Okot whose story of his journey from Sudan brings home the horrors that so many refugees have endured.
The darkness, intensity and anger are well balanced with humour and moments of joy, punctuated by music and spectacle from the cast including musicians Moein Ghobsheh and Mohamed Sarrar who both arrived in the UK via the Jungle. The impact of the show owes much to Miriam Buether’s set where, like the original staging at the Young Vic, the Playhouse Theatre’s traditional proscenium auditorium is completely transformed into Salar’s Afghan restaurant, where the audience sits at make-shift tables, occasionally served with chai or flatbread, immersing us in the world of the camp (albeit mitigated by the theatre’s air conditioning and stylish bar and bathrooms).
Directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, the action never lets up as we follow the story of the camp’s foundation in January 2015 through to its destruction by bulldozers in October 2016. With regular digs at the authorities and then Home Secretary Theresa May, there is anger at the heart of the play as well as a plea for understanding. With devastating irony, we are reminded that the refugees ended up in Calais because of a love of Britain, its culture and its football, unable to comprehend why they are not wanted by the nation they seek to be a part of. The camp may be gone but the play’s ending stresses that the refugee crisis continues. Nearly two years on, refugees are still scattered around the Calais area as well as other parts of Europe, making The Jungle an urgent and important piece of theatre that shouldn’t be missed.
Running to 3 November, 2018