Reviews London TheatreOWE & Fringe Published 11 July 2016

Review: Cargo at the Arcola

6th July - 6th August 2016

Dystopian drama: Verity Healey reviews Tess Berry-Hart’s depiction of the fight to leave a burning country.

Verity Healey
Cargo at The Arcola Theatre. Photo: Mark Douet.

Cargo at The Arcola Theatre. Photo: Mark Douet.

Dystopian drama Cargo has a few surprises in store for its audience. Expectations are turned upside down as designer Max Doey’s shipping container sets sail with its illegal human goods for Calais from a dock somewhere in burning Southern England. The scramble is to get into Europe from the UK and not the other way round. Why is quickly revealed. Post WW3, the UK has been divided into two factions: the rebels, hiding out in the mountains and fells of the North, and the loyalists in the South, governed by a religious extremist group who force men to wear beards, women to cover up and who cut off hands and other body parts for all manner of crimes.

The UK’s descent into such barbarism is helped along by America’s intervention in the North, although America itself, now commonly known as the Kingdom ruled by Godheads, has been reduced to a small community somewhere near Alaska. Joey and Iz are siblings running away from the loyalists who have hidden in the container trying to get to Calais. Sarah, a rebel from the North, and the mysterious and threatening American Kayffe, are there with them and both warn that things will not be much better for them in Europe, which is bordered off by wire fences and guns.

In playwright Tess Berry-Hart’s text familiar mountains usually seen through the romantic writings of fell walker Alfred Wainwright become monuments to human atrocities remembered by nomenclatures such as Helvellyn Uprising or Scafell Pike Massacre. It’s easy to see that the play is about something very familiar to us: that war turns people against each other and against themselves, even to such a degree that all sense of humanness is lost. Iz is victim to this the most. Having not paid for their passage, it slowly dawns on Joey and Iz that repayment may have to come from unpalatable work in Europe. Sarah and Kayffe try to use this realisation, and Iz’s obvious sexual potential, as a bargaining chip to protect themselves. The play is certainly prescient and a detailed exploration of how humans, when caught between the battles of totalitarian states and despot leaders, turn against each other.

If it is a little too transparent (“A collage of the world’s ills” I wrote at one point in my notes) it is realistic. But the realism calls for some metaphorical design from somewhere – perhaps the set, lighting or sound – just to play against the text’s literalness. The lack of metaphor slightly diminishes what is already a fantastical, although clever, apocalyptic tale.

Could events in the play ever take place in the UK? As it progressed I found myself thinking, why not? It is an exaggerated tale of what might happen to our world if extremism, far right factions and religious fanaticism are given enough breathing space, but a less physically divisive and outrageous universe could be plausible.

There are some strong performances, especially from Debbie Korley as Sarah, whose haunted past we can all too easily imagine from her burning, intense stares. Jack Gouldbourne’s Iz, making his stage debut, successfully portrays a young man whose innocence and perhaps complacency, make him malleable currency.

Cargo is on until 6th August 2016. Click here for more information.


Verity Healey

Verity writes for and contributes to Ministry of Counterculture and is a film facilitator for Bigfoot Arts Education. She is also a published short story writer and filmmaker.

Review: Cargo at the Arcola Show Info

Directed by David Mercatali

Written by Tess Berry-Hart

Cast includes Jack Gouldbourne, Debbie Korley, John Schwab, Milly Thomas



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