The Jungle

Joe Murphy, and Joe Robertson
Young Vic, National Theatre, and Good Chance Theatre
Playhouse Theatre

Salar’s restaurant Credit: Marc Brenner
John Pfumojena (Okot) Credit: David Sandison
Ben Turner (Salar) Credit: David Sandison

An emergency meeting at the Calais refugee camp in 2016 opens and closes Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson’s The Jungle, a powerful fictional play based on real events.

Refugees and volunteers gather in Salar’s restaurant, imaginatively created by Miriam Buether to replace the stalls of the Playhouse Theatre.

A solid wooden table runs the length of the space. The audience sit on benches at the table or along the edges of the walls. Some of us perch on a shelf of cushions level with the serving hatch to Salar’s kitchen.

This is the assembly point for an anxious community discussing their response to the latest threat of eviction.

As tear gas canisters are chucked into the space by menacing riot police, the play switches back to an earlier period when the community was being shaped.

It would be difficult to think of a more topical state of the nation play given the way many in the media and the political right have made the question of migration a lightning conductor for all manner of discontents.

It is well structured, epic in its depiction of events and character, sensitive and humorous in its dialogue. It is a very necessary play for our time.

The Afghan Salar (Ben Turner) is proud of having built the restaurant. His realism and generosity make him a strong figure in the camp.

Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmed), a former Syrian student of English, is a calm, wise voice and for the audience a guiding narrator. He is regarded as a “good man” but has endured the camp for too long and is close to breaking point.

There are others who have come closer to that point. The restless and deeply frustrated Afghan teenager Norullah (Mohammad Amiri) is ready to take incredible risks to get to England.

Given the history of Britain wrecking many of the countries the refugees have fled, there is an initial suspicion of the English volunteers who arrive at the camp.

Though generally inexperienced and unconnected to any government or NGO, they do bring links to limited resources that can help make living conditions more bearable and reduce tensions between different groups.

Sam, recently an Eton student, has a naïve trust in the courts and is constantly shocked by the judicial disregard of legal protections.

The older Paula (Jo McInnes) is more sceptical about the law but organises a census to establish numbers of refugees, including how many are unaccompanied children, in the hope that the prospect of making so many homeless will deter the authorities.

Beth (Rachel Redford), who does some teaching, becomes increasingly concerned about the 17-year-old Okot (John Pfumojena). One night, she finds him bloody and bruised from police violence.

As she bathes his wounds, he begins to trust her enough to tell his story of barely escaping the Darfur region of Sudan where a government militia is destroying villages, and then risking death in a dangerous trek across the desert.

And, because he didn’t have what the smugglers thought was sufficient money for a further journey, being kept in a detention camp where they tried to extract more money by sending his mother videos of him screaming beneath the weight of rock placed on his back.

But he is not the only isolated youth at risk. Throughout the show, a small, unattached child Amal (Aliya Ali) seems to haunt the scenes. Like over 400 other children in the camp, she has been abandoned by governments including the UK's legal obligation under the Dubbs amendment to welcome to the UK unaccompanied children.

We are told 194 children go missing during the demolition and dispersal of the camp.

As homes are demolished, one of the English volunteers furiously asks, “fucking European system, where the fuck are you?”

This is one of the finest plays of the last twelve months: vivid, believable and moving with numerous inspiring moments including the final scene of defiant community resistance.

It is an important play everyone should see.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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