The Container @ Young Vic, London

directed by
Tom Wright
It is dark. The audience gropes their way to their seats, finding a perch wherever they can, on wooden benches and plastic crates.

The rain beats down on the steel ceiling, a steady intense drumming.

The door slams shut behind us.


We are in a shipping container, parked somewhat incongruously on The Cut, just outside the Young Vic.
Clare Bayley’s play, The Container, which won both a Fringe First Award and the Amnesty Freedom of Expression Award when it was staged at the 2007 Edinburgh Festival, was written to be staged in just such a space.

It tells the story of group of immigrants London-bound on the back of a lorry: a middle-aged Afghan businessman, a Somali woman and her niece, a Turkish Kurd with a girlfriend and daughter in England.

The size of the container, by necessity, limits the size of the audience and the actors have only the narrow strip between seated knees in which to perform. The only light comes from torches. Bayley’s play attempts to show what it is to be human cargo, to convey the desperation that makes people pay money to be smuggled across borders in such a dangerous way. England is a beacon, life will be better there. Their expectations are high, unrealistically so in most cases. Only Abhin Galeya’s Jemal sounds a note of caution. The English don’t want us, he tells the others, but this knowledge doesn’t stop him from wanting to return.

The main dramatic pulse of this hour-long experiential production comes when the Turkish agent (played by Chris Spyrides), who is overseeing their transport, demands yet more money from his charges. Not all of them can pay and Bayley uses this to highlight the hopelessness of their situation. When one’s own survival is at stake the needs of others fall away.

On one level Tom Wright’s production is harrowing and effective. It is tense and oppressive and unrelenting, but also succeeds in making its audience think. But there is also something slightly strange about the idea of sitting in this crate on a lively London street as people drink and laugh just outside the metal walls. One suspects that the people who will choose to see this show will know most of what it tells them already and will be aware of the issues involved.

The idea of putting on a play in a shipping container, of trying to physically replicate the experience of human trafficking, never quite escapes from feeling like a gimmick; a well-intentioned gimmick perhaps it is being staged in association with Amnesty International but still a gimmick.

Throughout the play reference is made to shit and vomit, characters gag at the stench when they enter, and the sound of someone defecating in a bucket is heard at one point, but of course the stench is left to the imagination and the audience are informed at the start that if they are feeling claustrophobic they can leave at any time.

The six-strong cast perform well in such tight surroundings but while Bayley’s play clearly has its eye on raising awareness of a hidden issue, something a lot of people would prefer to brush to the back of their minds and forget about, the questions raised here go beyond the issues involved and the production ends up forcing its audience to ponder the very point of the exercise itself.

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