The Jungle at Playhouse Theatre invites us to listen and learn
To reach my seat at the Afghan Café – a rickety bench at a canteen table – I walk across a dirt floor through a makeshift bedroom, a supply store and a shanty kitchen, where bread waits to be baked. Bollywood films play on televisions, men mutter into iPhones. I'm offered a cup of hot, milky chai (it's delicious) and asked by a refugee if I have a cigarette. I don't. Oh well, never mind. Welcome to the Jungle.
Or should that be Zhangal? This, I learn, is the Pashto word for forest, misheard and turned 'Jungle' by Western volunteers in the Calais encampment that closed two years ago. It's one of the many nuggets of cultural history that I’m taught by Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmad), literature student, optimist and guide throughout Joe Robertson and Joe Murphy's moving play recounting the vicissitudes of life in this limbo between France and Britain. Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin's production, which sold out at the Young Vic, has now transferred to the Playhouse, superbly transformed by Miriam Buether.
Speaking from the present, Safi walks us through his memories. We start at the end, in February 2016, as the regulars of the café (run by Ben Turner's Salar, whose gruffness is tempered by a twinkling eye) are warned about an impending eviction. Snapping into action, they carry out a census with the help of British volunteers, hoping to fight the notice. Spirits are high.
Until they're not. The census fails. A death is announced and a troop of men march a slim plastic-shrouded parcel through the audience. Our table becomes the procession path for the funeral of 15-year-old Norullah, killed on the motorway trying to get to Dover. It's the first of many tonal 180s that whip you upside down and make your heart fall to your fet, reminding you how, here in Zhangal, life and death exist cheek by jowl; how closely terror, tragedy and tenderness are crammed among the tents.
Safi takes us back to the birth of this ad-hoc city-slum and the Afghan Café. Over the months that follow, Salar's becomes the place for meetings, prayers, parties and some pretty fierce tussles between camp factions. Crucially, it's a place for swapping stories. Each tale told – by Okot, a desolate 17-year-old with a torso cross-hatched by scars; by Helene, who has left nothing and everything behind in Eritrea; by many others – creates a patchwork of narratives as diverse as the ragbag fabric roof overhead, though not as bright.
The stories draw on those heard first-hand by the writers in the Jungle, when they founded their Good Chance theatre project there. This realism lends a searing intensity to each of the character's experiences. We learn that you don't have to look hard to find humanity in the camp – but you do have to look. 'This isn't France,' spits a visiting civil servant, implicating governments either side of the Channel that tried hard to avert their gazes from the chaos on their doorsteps. Safi, increasingly disillusioned, shames us for our blindness too: 'You've heard this story before.' The luxury of such ignorance doesn't exist for those living here.
Humour, bursting out wherever it can, becomes a survival mechanism, as much for us as for the characters. Nearly every cause for celebration is met with a chant of 'Glory Glory Man United', and English profanities are relished by foreign tongues like the Snickers given to the orphaned girl that hovers silently in every scene. Sam, an old Etonian volunteer, is rightly mocked for his Barbour. Salar, reading AA Gill's (real) account of his trip to the Jungle, is dismayed his café only received only four stars for atmosphere.
Comedy highlights the paradoxes in this city of contradictions, where volunteers are both helpers and invaders, and the place itself is a no man's land buzzing with life. It allows for tensions of profound subtlety. A particularly poignant episode sees volunteer Beth teaching an English lesson that's rife with physical humour. Friction between the teens result in tame boyish scuffles but with a pang I realise they're men now, having seen too much, just playing at having a childhood in the temporary safety of the café. They practise syntax and tenses, role-playing perilous passages across the Channel, stowed in lorries or refrigerated containers. Their laughter is just enough to dispel fears of flashlights and French police officers. It has to be.
'A refugee dies many times,' Okot tells us at one point. The lucky ones have a chance to finish their narratives, sustained only by hope for new starts. Hope, this play suggests, is at its purest when side by side with despair. At Zhangal, it's alive in the minds of the thousands of individuals who made it here, simultaneously a stone's throw and a world away from their final destinations. Welcomed into the Jungle by their stories, it's up to us to listen.
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