The Jungle was first performed to audiences late last year and, after the disappointment of missing out on seeing its debut at the Young Vic, I was lucky enough to snap up tickets as soon as its transfer to Playhouse Theatre went on sale.
It was January 2015 when a migrant and refugee camp emerged in the French city of Calais. With more than 7,000 people inhabiting the camp at its peak, the people who came to call the Jungle home had fled their homes in the Middle East. In fear of their lives, many traveled by boat in risky conditions with one thing pushing them forward: the thought of setting up a new life for themselves in England.
Stepping foot in the transformed Playhouse, I knew instantly that this was going to be the most immersive piece of theatre I’d witnessed. Colourful materials draped from the ceiling; hand-painted signs bearing the phrase ‘London calling’; long, uncomfortable benches lining the narrow stage for audiences, my own seat a cushion on a podium… There was hustle and bustle from the get go, bringing the recreation of Salar’s Afghan Café (reviewed by late food critic, AA Gill, for The Times newspaper) to life. We were handed sweet tea and Nân-i Afğânī (an Afghan bread) by the cast, already in character and drawing us in with them.
When English volunteers arrive in the Jungle to assist with re-housing and educating the young, there are mixed reactions from the multi-national inhabitants of the camp – and understandably, as it’s often difficult to tell whether Eton boy, Sam (Alex Lawther), is intentionally condescending or genuinely oblivious to the way he comes across.
The predominant speakers amongst the refugees are Salar (Ben Turner), Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmed) and Okot (John Pfumojena), whose recounts of their ordeals are so heartfelt that it’s easy to forget that the cast are acting.
Every element of this show – from the moments of darkness and torchlight to the loud sound effects of the machinery arriving to demolish the camp – is so well-thought-out that, as a member of the audience, it’s a challenge to fight for the panic and chaos not to take hold of you. Or perhaps the challenge is to let it?
Staged drama is combined with haunting, real-life footage, including images of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on a beach; images we all undoubtedly remember but would definitely rather forget are there, unavoidable on television screens and the silence that echoes around the auditorium dares you to put yourself in the shoes of these refugees, if only for a minute.
The Jungle isn’t just a piece of theatre – it’s a glimpse at the world through the eyes of those who lived through the horrors in Calais and an insight into the great lengths they went to in order to get there (as well as to leave again in an attempt to reach British shores).
For audiences, this is a couple of hours of eye-opening entertainment; for others, this was a reality they didn’t have a chance to escape from simply by standing up and stepping out of a theatre.
This is an important story that needs to be told far and wide. The Jungle needs to tour the country, make it to Broadway and beyond – but in case it doesn’t, I implore you to go and see it before its run comes to an end this November. The people who once called the Jungle home deserve for their story to be heard.
Closing date: 3rd November
Approx. running time: 2 hours 40 minutes, including interval