‘When does a place became a place?” asks the watchful Safi.
Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmad) is a Syrian refugee and also the narrator of this remarkable new play by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson. It is set in the once notorious, now razed, migrant and refugee camp known by its thousands of inhabitants as the Jungle.
The Joes, as the two Yorkshire-born writers are sometimes known, were responsible for setting up the Good Chance theatre there. This was an oasis of relative safety in the camp where people whose daily objective was to survive, and also to attempt a dangerous crossing to the UK, could tell their stories, or listen to those told by others. The genius of Miriam Buether’s design is that it replicates the camp with such accuracy that anyone who knew it (I reported from there) will feel an instant rush of recognition. Tarpaulins and silver insulation has been stapled to timber frames. Signs direct the audience through the camp’s quarters, named after the countries its communities left behind. Afghanistan is next to Sudan. Syria is alongside Libya. Everyone sits at tables abutting one of the camp’s restaurants. Yes, a restaurant!
It’s run by a tough Afghan called Salar (Ben Turner), seething with resentment at his displacement from home by forces beyond his control and often the policies of occupying foreign powers, the British included. This time, he’s not moving even though French riot police are coming to clear this part of the camp.
This is broadly the point of Murthy and Robertson’s play — to show how a civilisation can rise out of nothing, built by people who have next to nothing. As Safi puts it, “I could walk from Sudan through Palestine and Syria, pop into a Pakistani cafe on Oxford Street near Egypt, buy new shoes from the market place, Belgian cigarettes from an Iraqi corner shop, through Somalia, hot naan from the Kurdish baker, passing the dentist’s in Eritrea, hairdressers and legal centres, turn left on to François Hollande Street, stop at the sauna, catch a play at the theatre, mass at the church, khutba in a mosque before arriving at Salar’s restaurant in Afghanistan. When does a place become a home?”
The miracle of the real Jungle is matched here by a production co-directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, forging drama out of the relationships between those who lived there and the mostly British volunteers who worked there. Some moments hit with devastating poignancy such as when news reaches the camp of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body was washed up on a Turkish beach.
Yet there is humour, too. And although inevitably some harsh realities are absent, not least the brutal cold, the wonderful achievement of this play is to reflect the humour and humanity of what was less a camp, more a pop-up city.