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BWW Review: CARGO, Arcola Theatre, 8 July 2016

For all of London theatre's fecundity, there is a reluctance to meet some of the key issues of the day head on - not tangentially in a radical new take on Shakespeare or with a revival of an Eighties polemic by David Hare, but with a play that says something right here, right now about how our world is being shaped. And, God only knows, there's never been a time such theatre is more needed.

Migration has defined the people with whom we live, created our sprawling metropolises and provoked the current - what is it? - convulsion in Western politics. We hear much from the "I'm not racist, but..." shopkeeper in Lincolnshire, the gimlet-eyed opportunist seeking high office, the journalist mashing at their keyboard adopting the language and tone (consciously or not) of the Völkischer Beobachter, but we hear little from the migrants themselves. They speak in images: the child, drowned and washed up on a beach; the masses on the move, stretching into the distance; the squalid camps at borders where the hours crawl by. But what are their stories? What motivated each individual to make their choice? Where is the person behind the photo?

Cargo (at the Arcola Theatre until 6 August) boldly, bravely, brilliantly cuts through all the language of dehumanisation and gives us an exhilarating, scary, uncomfortable 90 minutes of theatre that puts men, women and children back into a discourse hijacked by economic and political concerns. Written by Tess Barry-Hart, a key coordinator of Calais Action, and directed by David Mercatali, unafraid to make the audience as uncomfortably claustrophobic as any director would dare, this is a play for our times.

We sit on the perimeter of a cargo container, as the metal of the ship clanks against the metal of its payload, the sea as turbulently unpredictable as the life from which our travellers are fleeing. Joey and Iz are brother and sister: she the surrogate mother, he the bright boy who knows all about the birds whose freedom to fly they both crave. Sarah is damaged, but she knows the ropes and knows the dangers they face on dry land. Kayffe is older, seemingly wiser, but why is he there, what is his motivation and can he be trusted?

Casting so intense a production as this is key to its success, and all four actors deliver superbly, at very close quarters, never out of our sight. Debbie Korley balances Sarah's regret and anger perfectly, never quite losing control, but never at ease either. John Schwab uses his big physical presence and easy charm to keep tilting our view of Kayffe - friend or foe? Milly Thomas, all bubbly optimism at first, becomes pinch-lipped and fearful as the truth of what awaits dawns on her, some of her best work done while others are speaking. Jack Gouldbourne makes a brilliant professional debut as Iz, full of the natural goodwill and affection of a kid, but instantly fearful when his treasured dreams fade.

Set in a dystopian near future which has echoes of works by Phillip K Dick, if the last 10 minutes releases the tourniquet-tight tension of the previous 70 with a slight lack of focus, well, that can be forgiven for what has gone before. This production harnesses the considerable power of theatre and uses it to tell an uncomfortable, but oh so necessary, story for our troubled times - and Metal Rabbit and the Arcola Theatre deserve the highest praise for doing so.

Photo credit: Mark Douet

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