The Theatreguide.London Review
Playhouse Theatre Summer 2018
The Jungle, first seen earlier this year at the Young Vic, is a salute to the human spirit, a celebration of courage and inventiveness, and a political polemic.
Even if, like many argumentative works, it goes on long after having made its point, it does make its point and offers strong scenes along the way.
As a programme note points out, there has always been a flow of political and economic refugees from Africa and Asia trying by legal or illegal means to get to safety and opportunity in Europe. But the first half of this current decade saw an explosive increase in the numbers of people fleeing wars, famines or repressive regimes.
Several thousand, aiming for Britain, got as far as the French coast, creating a makeshift refugee camp outside Calais as they waited to smuggle themselves across the English Channel.
This play set in the Jungle (an English mis-hearing of a much less derogatory African word) was written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, two Englishmen who worked in the Jungle along with other Western volunteers and aid workers.
Its sympathies are entirely with the refugees, celebrating them not only for the courage and dedication of their journeys but for creating a peaceful, functioning international city behind the French-built fences.
The play shows us Afghans, Sudanese, Iraqis and a dozen other nationalities recognising that they are all in the same boat (having in many cases been literally that) and overcoming their differences to work together.
We see a pop-up Afghan restaurant becoming a civic centre and are told of churches and mosques being built, schools being founded, and even a working theatre providing a place for cultural exchange.
That theatre was Murphy and Robertson's project and, although they don't appear in the play, we do meet other British volunteers, from the experienced activist who knows how to play the laws and courts, through the posh Eton boy who happens to be a whiz at organisation and flat-pack house building, to the drunken ageing hippie who just instinctively does the right thing.
And of course we also meet some of the refugees – the restaurant owner, the hothead, the damaged, the innocent child – and hear their stories.
At its best the play is very powerful, with strong scenes including the wary coming-together to agree on a democracy, one deeply wounded youth's account of his horrifying misadventures getting this far, an English lesson that doubles as instructions in how to smuggle yourself onto a Channel-crossing lorry, and the moral quandary of someone offered a smuggled passage to England originally promised to someone else.
There is no question that The Jungle is a compelling and moving work. Its only problem as a play is that it really has said almost everything it wants to by the interval.
There will be significant plot developments in the second half (Spoiler alert: the French eventually bulldoze the camp), but very little to add to the emotional and argumentative power of the first hour or so.
Rather than building in effect, the play risks running downhill as it continues to re-make points it has already made.
Miriam Buether's design rips out most of the Playhouse's main level so the play is staged on a kind of transverse, with most of the audience on two sides of a runway stage.
Even then, the action is as likely to be in the aisles as onstage, and co-directors Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin do not always succeed in keeping the hubbub and rushing about from descending into ineffectual chaos.
Only a few of the performers, many doubling and tripling in secondary roles, are given the chance to stand out – Ammar Haj Ahmad as an engaging narrator, Ben Turner as the proud restaurateur, Rachel Redford as a committed if naive English volunteer.
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