SUSANNAH BAIN reviews Cargo at the Arcola Theatre.

Immersive spaces are always simultaneously exciting and terrifying. You are filled with the expectation and hope that the production you are about to see will captivate you, while there is the fear it will not. Cargo, currently showing at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, places the audience within the cargo of a ship – all metal walls, and seats covered in black tape. Despite Max Dorey’s design succeeding in creating an initial atmosphere, however, the play itself disappoints.

The idea behind Cargo is, undoubtedly, an inspired and timely one. Playwright Tess Berry-Wright, who runs the grassroots charity Calais Action, transplants the current situation in Syria to somewhere far closer to home. In an apocalyptic but obviously relatively modern world, Britain has descended into civil war. There is a struggle between Loyalists and Rebels, with law and punishment carried out in a manner which sounds reminiscent to that of the so-called ‘Islamic State’. This could and should have been the makings of an intellectually stimulating production.

Photo credit: Mark Douet

Photo credit: Mark Douet

However, most aspects of the show let down the promising idea which drives it. The script seems rather underworked and messy. The words and stories recounted by the four actors are extremely repetitive, inconsistent and often ill-fitted for the circumstances. Berry-Wright seems to have tried too many tropes in one show – attempting to fuse colloquial language with references to Herman Melville and Samuel Taylor. This doesn’t work within the time-span of eighty minutes. Equally, the structure of the plot is scruffy – too slow to begin, then too quick, then too many points where it seemed to end but, alas, did not. This was obviously straining for the cast, and one has to congratulate director David Mercatali for keeping it watchable, and, at times, enjoyable.

In the cast’s performance, there are, however, genuine moments of highly effective acting. Beyond their half-formed parts, Jack Goldbourne and Milly Thomas manage to convincingly play an orphaned and traumatised brother and sister, Ishmael and Joey. Equally, Debbie Korley’s Sarah, a woman of once high status who has lived through too much and lost everything, is convincing and effective.

It is a shame that an idea with such potential is let down in the writing. Glimpses of inspiration within the play prove thought-provoking and pertinent, hinting at what could have been. A casual mention of the fact refugee Brits are prohibited from entering mainland Europe after leaving the European Union a few years prior is distressingly pertinent to current conversations regarding Brexit and Britain’s own uncompromising immigration policies. The script also hints at the current political landscape in America; the global hegemon in the near-future world of the play has reverted backward, becoming a strongly Christian state after too much global interference has led to its downfall.

Cargo was meant to show us how close we are to the refugees we half-willingly forget every day. I wish it had been able to make us remember a little more.

‘Cargo’ is showing at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston until 8th August. For more information and to book tickets go to http://www.arcolatheatre.com/event/cargo/2016-07-06/