Review: Cargo at Arcola Theatre

We’re all used to hearing about refugees by now. A bit too used to it, actually; we hear the word so often these days that it’s begun to lose all meaning. It’s a sad but undeniable fact that the sight of terrified people risking everything to flee their homes has become ordinary, everyday… and with the click of a remote, even the most compassionate among us have the power to change the channel and dismiss the pictures from our minds. It’s something that happens to other people, from countries far away, so it’s easy to distance ourselves from the situation.

Tess Berry-Hart’s Cargo offers its audience no such luxury. For 80 gruelling minutes, we’re trapped in the dark, claustrophobic belly of a ship with four terrified refugees: Iz (Jack Gouldbourne) and his big sister Joey (Milly Thomas), Sarah (Debbie Korley) and Kayffe (John Schwab). We don’t – at least initially – know where they’ve come from, or what’s led them to leave behind everything they know and love and embark on such a dangerous journey. All we know is that they’re headed for Europe, the promised land where a golden future awaits them… if they can only get there.

Photo credit: Mark Douet
Photo credit: Mark Douet

Director David Mercatali and designer Max Dorey pull no punches in their efforts to give us an authentic experience. Seated on wooden crates and plunged more than once into prolonged and total darkness, we’re kept in a state of constant, deliberate discomfort, and spared nothing; even the loo bucket is only inches from the audience (and yes, it does get used – more than once). As the journey unfolds in real time, the four characters form – and just as quickly break – alliances, swap stories, and try to decide who they can trust. And gradually, a truth begins to emerge that suddenly puts a very different complexion on our understanding of what – and who – a ‘refugee’ is.

In the tiny, cramped space, we’re treated to four exquisite performances from Cargo’s actors. Each of these characters has lived through horrors we can’t even imagine, and it’s affected them all in different ways. John Schwab is excellent as Kayffe, a mysterious American who constantly rewrites his own history until we can no longer tell truth from lies, and Debbie Korley gives a haunting performance as the fragile Sarah – even as she makes plans for a new life in Scandinavia, she can’t quite leave behind the things she’s had to do to get this far. In contrast, Jack Gouldbourne is almost puppy-like as Iz, full of innocent and heart-breaking optimism about the future, while Milly Thomas’ Joey is hardened and cautious, forced to take on the role of mother to her little brother, knowing deep down that she won’t always be able to keep him safe.

Photo credit: Mark Douet
Photo credit: Mark Douet

Don’t expect an easy ride with Cargo; it’s almost unbearably tense from the moment you step inside the dingy, cramped space, and it forces its audience to confront two very uncomfortable truths: first, this is happening right now to unimaginable numbers of people, and will continue whether or not we turn off the TV. And second, it might not be happening to us – but that doesn’t mean it never could.

Devastating and unsettling it may be, but this timely and compelling piece of theatre is nonetheless essential viewing.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

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