At the moment, it seems the only upside to a political system in turmoil is the incredible quality of related theatre it is inspiring. Tess Berry-Hart’s Cargo (showing in Studio 2 at the Arcola) is no exception.
Drawing on her humanitarian work with Calais Action (a charity that helps refugees across the globe), Cargo takes its audience on a journey with Iz, Joey, Sarah & Kayffe, through a dystopian world that doesn’t feel too dissimilar from our own. The four ‘passengers’ all appear to be seeking new lives, in friendlier surroundings, but all is not as it seems…
It is set in the round, with the entire performance area transformed into a shipping crate – Max Dorey’s design is simple, but hugely effective. From a patron’s perspective, the makeshift benches aren’t the most comfortable things to sit on for the duration of the play, but this strangely adds to the experience & feeling of authenticity.
Again, Christopher Nairne’s lighting design is quite straightforward in theory, but is so well executed and really adds to the atmosphere of the piece. It begins in claustrophobic & disorientating complete darkness, and from then on is mostly lit to imitate the crate being illuminated by Joey’s mobile phone. The sound, too, is used to great effect at moments of heightened tension – Max Pappenheim’s design does just enough to keep things realistic.
The cast of four put in absolutely extraordinary performances.
Jack Gouldbourne & Milly Thomas as brother & sister, Iz & Joey, portray a real sibling bond, though it gets well & truly tested. Thomas has a fierceness about her that shows just how protective Joey is of her younger brother – and Gouldbourne breaks your heart as you see in his eyes the stark reality of the danger they’re in. There is an anxiety about Sarah, which is translated by Debbie Korley with a twitchy physicality. You sense that she doesn’t want to keep still & definitely seems to be hiding something. John Schwab plays Kayffe, an American, with an air of such ambiguity that it is almost impossible to know if he’s telling the truth. As such, he sits somewhere between harmless joker & menacing threat, leaving the audience on the edge of their seats. His surprise entrance about halfway through shifts the energy & raises the stakes for all involved.
It takes a while to lay the foundations of the story, and it isn’t clear where they are escaping from until Kayffe appears & shakes things up (them speaking in regional British accents doesn’t confirm anything). The fact that they actually are escaping a dystopian Britain makes the story (& real refugees’ plight) more accessible for the home audience – and it is a clever move to allude to the EU referendum result as well. It is an experience as well as a play, and one that should touch as many people as it possibly can.
My verdict? Cargo is one of the most relevant & important plays of the moment – gripping, tense & definitely deserving of a transfer.
Cargo runs at the Arcola until 6 August 2016. Tickets are available online and from the box office.