The Jungle review – vital drama of hope and despair at the Calais camp

Playhouse theatre, London
This vivid recreation of life in the sprawling refugee camp is a priceless piece of theatre that enlarges our understanding while appealing to our emotions

This is that rare thing: a necessary piece of theatre. It is the work of Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, who created Good Chance theatre in the refugee camp at Sangatte, Calais, that became known as the Jungle. It not only offers, in a superb production by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, a vivid recreation of lived experience but leaves you pondering how the world should address what is seen as the migrant crisis.

First seen at the Young Vic last year, the production has moved into the West End of London with its vital organs intact. Miriam Buether’s design transforms the stalls of this jewel-like theatre into the camp’s Afghan Cafe, where we sit round long, rough tables that become walkways for the actors. While the space seethes with activity, there is also a clear shape to the play. Starting with a funeral and the threatened eviction of the camp’s inhabitants in October 2016, it goes back in time to trace the site’s growth over 18 months. We see how a random, multinational mix of refugees turns into a town of more than 6,000 citizens living with a daily sense of hope and desperation.

The whole play is built around a shrewd balance of opposites. Optimism is embodied in the personality of Safi, a former literature student from Aleppo, Syria, who finds in the camp “more hope than you’ve seen in all lifetimes”. That is offset by the harrowing memories of 17-year-old Okot, who has made the tortuous journey from Darfur, Sudan, and who declares “a refugee dies many times”. It is a sign of the play’s careful structure that these two are left to compete for a place in a smuggler’s lorry, where possession of an onion, to deter guard dogs, is the only guarantee of survival.

The Jungle at the Playhouse theatre, London
The evening blends order and chaos, reflections and rants, songs and scuffles in astonishing profusion. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Murphy and Robertson create a series of mounting contradictions. Salar’s Afghan Cafe, given a four-star review by AA Gill, represents the human capacity for resilience: meanwhile one of Salar’s compatriots constantly complains about inadequate sanitation. The presence of voluntary UK helpers also provokes wildly different reactions: initially resented as interlopers, their efforts in home-building, childcare and education are, in the end, gladly received. But the biggest conflict of all comes in the fierce internal debate over whether to accept a French offer of relocation or fight to preserve the existing, self-made community.

If I was overwhelmed by the play, it is because it raises a host of issues and because the production itself seems a mix of the structured and the spontaneous: the evening blends order and chaos, reflections and rants, songs and scuffles in astonishing profusion. It is also powerfully performed. Ammar Haj Ahmad (Safi), John Pfumojena (Okot), Ben Turner (Salar) speak for the camp’s occupants; Alex Lawther (an Etonian posh boy), Rachel Redford (a teenage teacher), Jo McInnes (a free-swearing child protector) for the volunteers. The result is one of those priceless evenings that enlarges our understanding while appealing to our emotions.

Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Jungle, play about Calais migrant camp life, to get West End run
Playhouse Theatre will stage immersive production of work by Joe Robertson and Joe Murphy

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

12, Mar, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Calais 'Jungle' camp: clashes as authorities demolish homes
Police fired teargas at migrants who threw stones and set fire to shelters after dozens of makeshift shacks were dismantled

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris, Peter Walker and Ben Quinn

01, Mar, 2016 @7:33 AM

Article image
Calais refugee camp theatre stages a double encore
The makeshift stage on which A-list stars entertained migrants in Calais is now to be rebuilt in two locations, vow the two young British playwrights behind the scheme

Vanessa Thorpe Arts and media correspondent

19, Mar, 2016 @9:18 PM

Article image
Shipwreck review – vital political drama takes Trump seriously
Liberal Americans slug it out in Anne Washburn’s sprawling play that unpicks the messy demise of democracy

Michael Billington

20, Feb, 2019 @10:58 AM

Article image
There’s nascent hope in the Calais ‘Jungle’ camp. So why destroy it? | David Kraft
The authorities have brutally bulldozed churches, a mosque and a school, and plan to do more in March – undoing all the help we’ve given refugees there

David Kraft

18, Feb, 2016 @9:00 AM

Article image
Calais refugee camp running out of food amid donor fatigue
Charities warn of shortage of food, tents and blankets as number of refugees keeps growing while donations dwindle

Amelia Gentleman in Calais

02, Sep, 2016 @9:31 AM

Article image
France prepares to bulldoze half of Jungle migrant camp
Up to 1,000 people given a week’s warning with offer of alternative accommodation in converted shipping containers

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

12, Feb, 2016 @12:58 PM

Article image
Last of Calais refugee children evacuated as camp clearance ends
Riot police stand by as buses take remaining asylum-seeking teenagers to undisclosed locations across France

Amelia Gentleman in Calais

02, Nov, 2016 @8:18 AM

Article image
UK and French authorities 'blind' to growing problems in Calais camp
Aid agencies and hauliers fear overcrowding and hunger will spark serious violence in French refugee camp

Matthew Weaver in London and Amelia Gentleman in Calais

30, Aug, 2016 @6:25 PM

Article image
Refugees take to hiding in northern France after Calais camp demolished
While some head for Dunkirk refugee camp Grande-Synthe, many sleep in ditches near the coast and continue trying to reach UK

Amelia Gentleman in Dunkirk

05, Nov, 2016 @7:00 AM