Playhouse Theatre, London – until 3 November 2018
When literally everyone I know, both in real life and in internet life, is raving about a piece of theatre (or anything else for that matter) I am instantly suspicious. I’m contrary like that. Yes, it is annoying.
The latest thing to swish onto my radar with 18 billion five star reviews is The Jungle, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson’s Young Vic/NT/Good Chance Theatre co-production about the infamous Calais refugee camp. When it was on at the Young Vic, theatre Twitter went nuts for it. Now it’s transferred to the West End, to The Playhouse, everyone else in the world is joining the party. I exaggerate, but only slightly.
And do you know what’s annoying? I 100% agree with them. In fact, I’d go as far to say that The Jungle is probably the best piece of theatre I’ve ever seen. Ever. It’s certainly the most important. I honestly can’t praise or recommend this show enough. Buy tickets immediately, and preferably buy an extra one for me so I can see it again.
If you’re still reading this rather than proceeding immediately to but tickets, then I’ll assume you want to know why I love it so much. I could go on about this for a long, LONG, time because there are so many reasons. Here are some of the most important.
The Jungle is first and foremost an extraordinary piece of writing. Joes Murphy and Robertson have created something really special: it’s so joyful, so powerful, so sad, so absolutely fucking enraging, so vital and, most of all, so humane. It weaves together the stories of the different refugees with the politics of the refugee crisis so skilfully that it manages to be an issue play with an unapologetic political message that’s not preachy or hand-wringing.
I’m honestly not sure I’ve seen a Capital P Political play that manages this, ever. Part of this, I think, is to do with the structure of the play. We have a narrator type character, Safi (he speaks a lot of laungages so his role in the story as de facto translator makes his role in the play completely work), to guide us through both the intertwining plots and the politics, focusing our attention on the personal but making us aware of the political too.
It helps as well that, within its overall message, The Jungle is not a simplistic piece. It tackles some really big, complex issues within its overarching big, complex issue. So, yes, it is mostly interested in making us feel proper human feelings for refugees and be angry at those in positions of power who don’t. But it’s also interested in making us think about the role and motivations of British volunteers, the influence of British foreign policy, what identity means and how immigration affects that, the importance of family, terrorism and its causes and, possibly my favourite, when does a place become a place. There are no easy answers to any of this and the Joes aren’t interested in giving you answers anyway, they want you to think for yourself. I think this is how it avoids being preachy or glib. Yes it has a message, and yes it is very clearly and proudly an issue play, but there’s always more going on beneath the surface.
More than anything, though, it’s a compelling piece of writing because it is a masterclass in storytelling. This is literally true, in that so much of it is concerned with the characters telling their stories. It’s true in its structure, with our narrator character. It’s most true in the incredible drawing of the characters who are so rich and vivid that you could easily imagine them strolling out of the theatre with you at the end of the show. The backstories the characters have are expertly constructed, the way they therefore interact with each other is never less than entirely thought through, the actual script is superb (no mean feat given the number of languages bits of it are written in). You can tell that the Joes really care about their characters and the respect with which they treat them and their stories is huge. There is therefore a safety in built in their writing. They would never let their characters just become narrative devices to advance a message.
The Jungle is an incredible play, then. It’s also, thanks to an incredible production helmed by the mighty Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, a completely unique experience. As soon as you walk into the theatre, Miriam Buether’s astonishing design folds you into a completely different world. The Playhouse has been transformed into the Afghan Cafe at the heart of the camp (and story). The stalls of the theatre simply don’t exist. If you’re sat in one of the areas where they would normally be (and I urge you to, if you do get tickets) then you are sat at restaurant tables or on the floor around them. You may be served sweet tea, rice and beans, flatbreads. The cast wanders around with the audience before the show and during the interval (a highlight of my trip was watching Sudanese refugee leader Mohammed helping an elderly audience member turn off her iPad pre-show). It is utterly immersive in the absolute best way; it’s entirely possible to forget you’re in a theatre at all, let alone that you’re in central London.
Most of the time this is lovely, when the French bulldozers arrive in the camp and the story it becomes terrifying. Lighting designer Jon Clark is not afraid of using prolonged periods of darkness and blinding light to utterly confuse the audience, Paul Arditti’s sound is by turn deafening and silent. At some points the whole theatre shakes. Part of the ceiling moves. Walls are knocked in. I can’t fully describe the genius (and it is that) of this production, and actually I don’t want to say more for fear of giving too much away. You really do just need to go and experience it for yourself. It’s an extraordinary thing.
Finally, there is an ensemble cast of genuine diversity and slightly obscene talent. They’re all amazing and work incredibly hard – the immersive nature of the show means many of them get little by way of off stage time, even less than the audience in some cases, and on top of that they’re expected to take part in hugely high energy sequences (and musical numbers!) to boot. There are some real standout performances amongst them too, in particular the three sort of leads: Jonathan Nyati, iPad sorter extraordinaire, as practical and realistic Mohammad, Ben Turner as proud and brave Salar (if they ever do a stage version of The Walking Dead, which they should, Turner with current facial hair is surely a shoe in for Negan) and, especially, Ammar Haj Ahmad as Safi, the show’s complicated and tragic heart. I don’t think I’ve ever rooted for a character in any play more than I rooted for Safi.
Now look. I know I say ‘you should see this’ about quite a lot of shows. But honestly, you need to see The Jungle. You just need to. It will make you laugh, it will make you cry and it will make you so angry you want to scream. Most importantly it will make you want to change the world. And theatre can’t do more than that.
The Jungle is at The Playhouse until 3rd November. The production is supporting the charity Help Rufugees If you’ve got a couple of quid spare, why not chuck it their way? They have excellent t shirts.
This will mean nothing if you’ve not seen the show, but my seat for this one was in Syria, S13. It cost £15 and I would happily pay ten times as much for this show.