A galaxy far, far away

Rating: 5

Vanessa

by Georgina Brown 

You enter the Playhouse through the foyer as usual. But the auditorium has been transformed. The floor is earth, littered with rubbish. Something fragrant is cooking. A cheery fellow offers a delicious polystyrene cup of chai – cinnamon-flavoured tea – and shows you to a bench seat in the Afghan Flag Cafe where the vast communal table doubles as a stage. Salar’s restaurant was one of the makeshift buildings in the refuge that sprang up in Calais, a home from home for some 8,000 refugees all hoping to get to the UK. The Sunday Times food critic AA Gill raved about his chicken livers, ‘made with an elan that defied the surroundings’. I can vouch for the chick-pea curry myself, which our gracious guide, Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmad), who has fled the bloodshed in Aleppo, generously shared with me. He hopes one day to return home to his beloved Syria but, he tells us, ‘Calais is engraved in my heart’.

Welcome to The Jungle, a place filled with surprises and, indeed, delights – freshly baked bread, evocative drumming, dancing, juggling and jokes about Mrs May donating a pair of leopard-skin stilettos to the cause – as well as blood, sweat and tears, evoked with a rare and raw urgency, intensity and immediacy in Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin's engrossing, harrowing, up-close production.

The piece was devised by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, who set up a theatre alongside the bakers’ shops, Christian churches and mosques for just a few months before riot police moved in with tear gas to force an eviction and bulldozers flattened the place. Which is where this piece begins, with people screaming, shouting, running in all directions in fear and desperation. And then Safi takes us back to 2015, when the migrant crisis was at its height and people who had managed to flee Syria, Eritrea, Libya, Afghanistan, Sudan and elsewhere got stuck in Calais, from where they hoped to stow away to the promised land of the UK, some paying fortunes to merciless smugglers.

Scarred 17-year-old Okot (John Pfumojena) from Darfur weeps as he recalls his torture by smugglers who then sent a video to his mother demanding money. He doesn’t want to be here. others are here voluntarily. Sam (Alex Lawther), who has just left Eton, is wearing a Barbour. ‘It’s like Glastonbury without the toilets,’ he says. Decent Derek (Dominic Rowan) from Islington says, ‘on behalf of my country, I am so sorry.’ They may sound silly, but at least they were there, falling on their knees in solidarity with the dispossessed, begging anyone who might be listening for a place of safety.

Essential, important, humbling theatre.

Until 3 November at the Playhouse Theatre in London, WC2: 020-7452 3000, www.national theatre.org.uk

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