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HUMAN CARGO - The Plough Arts Centre, Torrington - 23 May 2018

Human Cargo is a two-handed theatre production around the subject of emigration, slavery and transportation. It is the creation of Matthew Crampton, writer and storyteller, and derives from his 2016 book of the same name. While Matthew supplies the stories, Jeff Warner supplies the songs.

The stories tell the experiences of a number of individuals – from Aberdeen, Essaka, Brighton, South Uist and Benbecula, and from Haran al-Awamid. It is the common experience of translocation across the ocean from home to a new land that allows the three elements of emigration, slavery and transportation to hang together – in each case a human cargo - otherwise they are, of course, very different experiences. Matthew delivers the stories a bit at a time, moving from one to another, rather than each as a continuous narrative. This complex of stories is then interspersed with commentary and direct address and, essentially, by Jeff Warner’s songs.

The songs are variously illustrative - of the stories themselves; of examples of the material the people concerned might have been singing; of diversion; of aspiration and hope. Some are familiar: Away Idaho, Long Time Travelling, etc. Others, such as Sweet Sunny South or An Invitation To North America are less familiar to English audiences. Perhaps surprisingly, three shanties are also in the programme – entirely appropriately! One welcome diversion features the third, unadvertised, participant in the show – a jig-doll brilliantly operated by Jeff and capable of dance moves I have never seen elsewhere.

The writing and construction of the production is skilled. Matthew’s writing and delivery together with Jeff’s versatility and interpretation create a cohesive whole. Here are two masters of their trade at their best. Whereas Matthew’s interpolations concerning refugees in the recent production of Bellamy’s Transports felt, to me, incongruous and out place in such a focused singular story of deportation, Human Cargo is a very different matter. Here the integration of song and story works exceptionally well, making a cohesive whole that is informative, thought-provoking and, despite the inevitable seriousness of the stories, entertaining. The content of the production is, of course, of contemporary relevance and potentially a difficult subject. In each location on this tour the production has been ‘partnered’ by a local refugee support organisation.

It is unfortunate that the show’s tour has been so short – and well over by the time this is published. It ran only from May 11th to June 17th. But, if it should come again, make sure you see it. The show works on so many levels and whether your interests are in the performers, the various aspects of the content, or the concert experience, Human Cargo comes highly recommended.

Tom Brown