Welcome to The Jungle. Take a seat at one of the makeshift tables surrounded by tarpaulin and chipboard walls. This is the Afghan Flag restaurant, one of many establishments that grew up in the Calais refugee camp – recreated here to evoke the powerful community that also grew up there.
Yes, the illegal encampment (set up in early 2015, bulldozed in late 2016) was cold, dirty and scary, but it was a hopeful place too, a place where people overcame differences of nationality and religion, worked together and kept each others’ dreams alive.
British playwrights Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson know of what they write: they set up a temporary theatre named Good Chance in The Jungle in 2015. This story has been staged in a co-production between their company (Good Chance), the Young Vic and the National Theatre: it feels of national significance. Directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, ‘The Jungle’ is a powerful, humane, generous work, as lively and colourful as it is angry and wounded.
It could so easily end up preachy or a slog, over-earnest or cloying. And it does get dangerously close to all of those at times. But despite ‘The Jungle’ covering a lot of ground – giving an overview of the construction and destruction of the camp as well as allowing individual journeys to pierce through – the direction is nimble and self-aware enough to swerve the many obvious pitfalls.
There are impressive performances throughout. Ones that stand out include Alex Lawther imbuing Eton posh boy-turned-housing planner Sam with feeling and nuance, while John Pfumojena astonishes as a 17-year-old refugee from Darfur who starkly recounts his journey. You could get lost in the horrors behind those eyes.
Much of ‘The Jungle’ is also exuberant, full of music and movement; human resilience can be a glittering thing. The play is also funny, inviting self-mocking laughter at the excruciating do-gooder Brits who have invited themselves in. But we come to love them too: their attempts to help may be imperfect but, bloody hell, at least they tried. And they remind us to rage at our own government’s incompetent response.
There is – slightly, rightly – some discomfort at being a comfortable London audience sitting on uncomfortable benches to experience a simulacrum of genuine hardship. Nevertheless ‘The Jungle’ makes a very strong case for the empathetic power of theatre. You come out understanding more but also feeling more. This is a story we need to hear again. Murphy and Robertson pull off a remarkably vibrant and vital retelling.