Cargo, Arcola Theatre

Cargo at the Arcola Theatre, Milly Thomas, Jack Gouldbourne and Debbie Korley,  Photo by Mark Douet

Civil war is raging in the formerly united, newly named Kingdom. Loyalists and rebels have divided up the charred, frightened remains. Religious fundamentalism and capital punishment are the law of the land. There are furtive rumours of a better life across the channel, and there are regular passages to Calais. Money can buy passports, or if you don’t have any of that, there are people who will help you stow away as Cargo that you can pay later. But safety isn’t a given once you’re on board. The holds of these ships are dark and full of desperate people with shady pasts and their own agendas, and a lot can happen in an 80-minute crossing. Tess Berry-Hart’s script is as much a thriller as it is rousing political theatre, and the diverse cast of four effectively capture a snapshot of the population effected by this tragedy. Though the story is overly convoluted by truths and lies, Cargo provides a timely reminder, like other refugee-themed work at the moment, that we are all human beings in need of a safe and secure life.

Joey (Millie Thomas) is there with her younger brother Iz (Jack Gouldbourne). They’re from the loyalist-controlled docks and have lost everything. Joey’s shrewd and resourceful, Iz is an optimistic innocent who dreams of being a waiter and is the only genuinely nice person on board. Gouldbourne is totally believable as the tween who sees the good in everyone, and is nicely balanced by Thomas’ maternal defensiveness. They meet Sarah (Debbie Korley), an elusive northerner played with brilliant intensity. John Schwab is the slippery American Kayffe, who’s ever-changing biography hides horrific experiences. Berry-Hart never fully reveals the objective truths of the world around them, which is frustrating but leaves plenty to the imagination. The fates of these people are a great unknown in a world where desperation forces people to solely look out for themselves.

Tense from the onset from fear of discovery, anxiety builds quickly though there’s little to do except wait to arrive. These characters have seen so many horrors that relaxing is impossible and anyone could be the enemy. The script is conversational, yet guarded, as the characters attempt to get to know each other. Barry-Hart incorporates believable conflict into the narrative that director David Mercatali approaches with varying pace. The unresolved ending is unsatisfying, but no doubt realistic.

The design team Max Dorey (set), Christopher Nairne (lighting) and Max Pappenheim (sound) create an immersive environment of simple pallets and packaging. The boat is a constant aural presence and the seating, whilst as uncomfortable as the play’s circumstances, is probably pretty accurate. The design exquisitely works together with Mercatali to destabilise the audience; married with the script’s uncertainties it is a most unsettling effect.

Cargo could still use some refining and clarity in order to allow the audience to take in the experience without focusing on following the veracity of the character’s experiences, especially towards the end. Despite this small issue, or really because of it, the experience feels all the more truthful to refugee experience. Even though the concept of re-contextualising it to British people is not new, it is certainly effective. Like other plays on the topic, it humanises displaced people, their need for sanctuary and their vulnerability to exploitation. If theatre repeats these messages enough, the world might start to listen.

Cargo runs through 6 August.

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