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Cargo (Arcola Theatre, London): Review

cargo Stowaways. Milly Thomas (left) and Jack Gouldbourne (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Mark Douet.`

Cargo is a hellish ride into the journeys of refugees that’s not at all what you think or expect. A vital and terrifying work of tremendous gravity.

A brother and a sister are escaping their country, trafficked out by smugglers and hidden inside a shipping container: they are cargo. But who else is in there with them, and are their stories all they’re cracked up to be?


Yankee Doodlebug. John Schwab (left) and Debbie Korley (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Mark Douet.


Going to see a play about refugeeism was never going to be an easy thing for me to watch, let alone write up. My grandparents were refugees in Hong Kong after fleeing China and from Mao Zedong’s “great leap forward” as they were Buddhists. Escaping possible death and torture, the family lived in a storm drain in Hong Kong before being given social housing by the UK government. Then my mother was born, moved to the Doncaster (because it sounded “exotic”…no, seriously!), met my father studying nursing in Leicester, and the rest, as they say, is history. So seeing a play written by Tess Berry-Hart who is also a key coordinator of the Calais Action Group, I went to Cargo knowing that it was going to hit some nerves, and that anything presented is going to have been taken from accounts of real life refugees who are going through what my grandparents went through 50 years ago, and then some. In fact, it’s one of the reasons this review is out so late. Aside from work commitments and health issues, it’s been incredibly difficult to try and gather my thoughts on how to make sense and come to terms with what Cargo portrayed and how these issues touched against my own family’s history, as well as how it’s pricked my own concerns and political leanings. Cargo affected me incredibly deeply, as you can witness in my #FreshOffTheStalls, because it’s a critical, forcefully honest, and vital piece that emotionally shattered me.

Indeed, Cargo really does tremendous amounts to challenge perceptions of refugees. For starters, specifically why they leave their homes and the conditions and sacrifices they have to endure in doing so, many of which are truly horrific: the necessary paranoia about fellow travelers, the price of being smuggled, the heartbreaking compromises, and the brutality of fundamentalist regimes that are being left behind. But Cargo also paints a surprising picture of their lives before they fled: dancing in grand ballrooms, French bakeries around the corner, and charming family leisure activities. These are all things we consider humdrum and take for granted, and is something that is almost always left unconsidered in our perception of refugees. These are vital considerations which deepen and humanize people, thus separating them from the saturation of xenophobic sensationalism in the press. Even for those who are a bit more clued up, it might be a bit preaching to the choir, but it’s still provocative.


A close shave. Jack Gouldbourne (left) and Debbie Korley (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Mark Douet.

But then, Berry-Hart makes a small reveal which not only ties up little inconsistencies that you might have put down to troupes of the production, but also turns Cargo completely on its head. Suddenly, not only is Cargo a realistic, vital, and challenging look at the lives of refugees, but it becomes something that is terrifyingly relevant and profoundly prophetic. It stops being a worthy and well-researched didactic and transforms into a petrifying harbinger that brutally drops the issues square on your toes.

On top of this, Berry-Hart has put together a tight claustrophobic thriller. With all the risks involved in travelling as a smuggled refugee, Berry-Hart weaves them into an intense thriller that is so volatile and unpredictable it’s completely gripping outside of the terror that the wider scenario of Cargo poses. You literally cannot escape from Cargo, mentally or physically, and the result is a menacing and shattering hour of grueling theatre.

Everyone should see Cargo. Everyone will emerge not just educated and challenged, but troubled to the very core and fundamentally fearful of the state of the world and where we’re heading.

Direction & Production

Metal Rabbit are a fantastically pioneering and incredible production company, part of the teams behind theatrical coup de graces Lardo and Radiant Vermin, who pull no punches for Cargo. Berry-Hart’s play is set inside of a shipping container, so that’s where the performance takes place. Designer Max Dorey turns Studio 2 at the Arcola into a realistic and menacing immersion, with the audience sat on boxes and seating made out of various bits of covered debris. This places patrons smack bang in the epicentre of Cargo making it all the more present and pressing. Add to this Christopher Nairne’s fantastic lighting, playing with complete darkness, low lighting, and small light sources such as phone screens and candles, Cargo is a dangerous and dark creation with a stifling aesthetic and atmosphere, especially when laced with Max Pappenheim’s omnipresent and sometimes deafening sound design that keeps a constant and growing tension streaming from start to finish. The production as a whole is an all encompassing theatrical experience like no other, and this is exactly the sort of unapologetic kick to the gut that Cargo demands.

David Mercatali’s direction is completely unyielding, keeping a pace and a drama that is impossible to catch your breath from. Mercatali’s constant movement inside the in-the-round of the shipping container’s interior, and his denial of any relief from the action, is exhausting. It’s a meticulous and almost deranged pushing of energy that steamrolls you to the ground and knocks you senseless. But Mercatali is absolutely right to do so: Cargo doesn’t take prisoners and the audience shouldn’t expect to be spared. Mercatali’s direction is all about forcing you to come nose to nose with its issues in all their gruesome details and see yourselves reflected in them: he doesn’t care if you’re upset or uncomfortable, because you should be.


This little light of mine. Milly Thomas in ‘Cargo’. Photograph: Courtesy of Mark Douet.


Everyone in the cast demands exceptional praise: as an ensemble they are astonishing. They really battle against each other and pull at fractions that add to the Pandemonic pace and caprice of Cargo. All keep their cards close to their chest and carry secrets that you’re just desperate to find out, or are so well at concealing their true motives that it’s an absolute shock when they reveal their hand. All are desperate and tenacious, tapping dangerously into base survival instinct and making constant compromises to their character’s sense of humanity. They are measured, calculating, and controlled, meaning you can never switch off from any performance, neither can you dismiss any of them as being irrelevant or innocuous. Jack Gouldbourne, Debbie Korley, John Schwab, and Milly Thomas are a formidable quartet that dominate Cargo and hold you captive whether you like it or not.


Cargo is absolute one of the most pressing plays about refugeeism and the current political climate to have ever emerged. Not only is it a no-holes-barred keystone of the now, it’s also bracing warning for the future. Unmissable, unrelenting, and utterly destructive.

Cargo plays at the Arcola Theatre, London, E8 3DL, until 6 August 2016. Tickets are £17 (concessions available). To book, visit