Sometimes, events on the world stage seem to be perfectly timed to add an extra touch of poignancy to a new production. For example, here in the UK, we held a recent referendum about our membership of the EU. The ramifications of the result are still being felt and have helped add another layer of intensity to Tess Berry-Hart’s Cargo having its world premiere at Dalston’s Arcola Theatre.
Inside a pitch black cargo container, three stowaways are trying to escape to a new life. Joey (Milly Thomas) and her younger brother Iz (Jack Gouldbourne) are running away together and have come to an arrangement with a people trafficker so that they do not need to pay for their passage until they arrive at the other side. Sarah (Debbie Korley) has been more professional in her activities, arranging for papers and a new passport before getting in the container. All told, the three of them are feeling OK about their chances once the ship docks, and then the unexpected appearance of American Kayffe (John Schwab) changes everything as he brings them the reality of life as a refugee in Fortress Europe.
Cargo is different to say the least. Max Dorey’s set really is a cargo container and the audience sit on all four sides on seats made of wooden pallets covered with shrink wrapped cargo. There is not a lot of room and everyone is really crammed in making the atmosphere taught and uncomfortable before the doors are shut and all the lights go out and the total blackness envelops everyone. Extremely effective lighting – designed by Christopher Nairne – works realistically with the actors’ actions to provide just enough light to see what is happening without turning the whole thing into just a set.
The story itself is partially based on research carried out by Tess Berry-Hart at the refugee camps in Calais and other places and the realism really shines through. My one minor point is that, with a running time of around eighty minutes, there is very little back-story established, especially as all the characters know what has happened and it would be out of character for them to discuss things in order to bring the audience up to date. However, this lack of history, along with various hints about things, means that the audience has the opportunity to decide for themselves how these four people have ended up in a cross-channel container ship. One other really positive point is that the performance takes place in real time, so that the start is when the ship leaves port and the end is when it arrives at its destination. A really nice touch from the author there.
Turning to the actors, Cargo is truly an ensemble piece and all four of the actors give a real depth to their respective characters. Of particular note, are Milly Thomas and Jack Goulbourne playing sister and brother Joey and Iz respectively. The two of them have a real rapport that suggests a genuinely strong relationship between them. Milly portrays Joey as strong, determined and prepared to go to any lengths to protect her young brother – even if that involves lying, threatening and taking Iz into more danger than he can possibly imagine. Iz on the other hand is brought to life by Jack as a very naive, hopeful young boy who is prepared to do whatever his sister says – even if he doesn’t really understand – and thinks the best of everyone. I did wonder if Iz was actually meant to be somewhere along the autism spectrum as he seemed to exhibit quite a few symptoms and that would really explain joey’s need to protect him. Debbie Korley’s Sarah is intense, distrusting of others and almost militaristic but, and this is important, she has a lovely heart – as shown by her attempts to help Iz – and that really shines through in this lovely portrayal. Apologies to John Schwarb, but I really didn’t like Kayffe the moment he appeared. There was something of the recruitment consultant about him. Immediately all nice and smiley, trying to be everyone’s friend but also shifty. Not prepared to answer questions about himself but trying to get information about the others and when his true colours show it’s almost a “yep, just as I thought” moment Brilliant acting from John.
Cargo is hard work to watch and David Mercatali’s direction really keeps things moving and adds to the claustrophobia and tension as the ship moves ever closer to its destination. The play is intense right from the start and, I have to say that for me, there was a palpable sense of relief when the container doors finally opened and I could get out back into the real world. The awful thing is that for far too many people Cargo is their world and they don’t have the luxury of the lights coming up so they can go to the bar for a quick drink before taking the train home. I don’t usually get political in reviews, but I would happily take everyone that is calling for our borders to be closed to protect us from ‘those people’ to see Cargo and just give them a taste of a refugee’s life.
Cargo really is a harrowing tale expertly crafted and presented. It is a real eye opener and the writer, actors and technical team should be applauded for their bravery in bringing this to the theatre going world.
Review by Terry Eastham
“Goods get damaged all the time. Wouldn’t want to spoil the cargo, now, would we?”
This timely world premiere is a tense and provocative thriller that reveals how much people are willing to risk in search of a better life.
In the dark of a container ship, a group sits huddled. Waves lap against the walls. The metal creaks softly. Then, all of a sudden, somebody whispers… For the cargo on this vessel, home is a long-distant memory – and a new land still many miles away. Will they survive the perilous journey to find a better future? Or could the greatest threat to their safety be locked amongst them?
Cargo is the enthralling new play from author and playwright Tess Berry-Hart (Someone to Blame, Sochi 2014). Directed by Evening Standard Award nominee David Mercatali (Little Light, Radiant Vermin, Johnny Got His Gun).
6 July – 6th August 2016