Cargo – Arcola Theatre, London

Writer: Tess Berry-Hart
Director:David Mercatali
Reviewer:Deborah Parry

Everyone has an opinion about the current refugee crisis, though, perhaps, it is less likely that we ponder the journey that someone takes – what it actually means to leave your home, every familiarity, and venture into the unknown. When we are reduced to mere cargo,what does our identity become, or, more importantly, how do we survive? These are the kinds of questions that writer Tess Berry-Hart has attempted to address in this new one-act play, with some success.

Cargo begins in absolute darkness, it is uncomfortable, prolonged and intense; voices finally emerge within the pitch black and we hear the actors before we see them, which is incredibly powerful. This is a claustrophobic piece of theatre, we are confined (when the play starts we are told we cannot be re-admitted if we leave) and we sit surrounding the actors, as they perform inches away from us- it is intimate and is played out in real time.

Despite the aforementioned setting, though, the play does not sustain this level of intensity or investigation. There are hints of truly shocking moments that are ‘politely’ cast aside and, therefore, we seldom feel as uncomfortable as the subject material calls for. Instead, we get a melange of clichés – a back a forth of who to trust (is a character a spy? Infiltrator?) and a muddle of bargaining, escape plans, etc. There is a knife that is frequently brandished but the immediacy of danger is never quite as intense or disturbing as it could be. This is not due to the acting ability of the cast – who are talented and give spectacularly strong and moving performances but, rather, a lack of certainty within the script itself. If Cargo is truly to be thought of as a thriller then it absolutely starts off that way but the sense of impending doom or uncertainty is never drawn out to breathtaking conclusions. It is difficult to fully appreciate the true experience of oppression when it is only spoken of and not played out on stage. Likewise, we are situated inside a cargo crate with the cast but it would be so much more immersive to experience the smell, the dirt, the discomfort, even the costumes (which, of course, we see very clearly within the small studio theatre) are too clean.

Ultimately, Cargo doesn’t give us a huge amount of insight as to what the experience of being a refugee might feel like but it provokes conversation, which is good enough.

Runs until 6 August 2016 | Image: MarkDouet


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