Play revisits tragedy of 58 Chinese immigrants who suffocated in lorry

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The Independent Culture

They fled China in search of a better life in Britain, but perished before setting foot in this country. Now the story of 58 illegal immigrants found dead in the back of a lorry as they were smuggled into Britain has been turned into a play.

The drama, 58, is inspired by events around 19 June 2000, when 60 Chinese immigrants were discovered hidden beneath crates of tomatoes in a container lorry at Dover.

All but two of them suffocated after the lorry's driver closed air vents prior to the five hour ferry crossing from Zeebrugge, Belgium, to stop customs officers hearing them.

58 premieres next week in Canterbury before starting a five-week tour of the country. A spokesman for Yellow Earth, the Asian theatre company that is staging the play, said it was a tribute to those who died. David Tse, the play's director, said: "Similar events, like Hillsborough, have been turned into art or dramatised in some way and enough time has passed for it not to be exploitative. It is a theme that is still relevant."

People in Birmingham, Leicester and Canterbury appear during the play in video interviews, giving their opinions on immigration and Chinese migrants' experiences.

A £40-a-ticket gala performance on 8 November will raise money for the Dover 58 fund which has been set up by solicitors seeking compensation for the relatives of the 54 men and four women who died.

Mr Tse described the themes of the play, written by Philippe Cherbonnier, as "numbers, imagination and luck". It contrasts the stories of three fictional immigrants, Meng, Lan and Chen, with that of the main character, Kate, a police officer who has to catalogue the clothes and possessions of the dead, and her unemployed husband, who dreams of winning the lottery and going to live in Spain.

Customs officers who found the bodies during a routine check said the scene was like something "out of a nightmare". Many later received counselling. One remarked: "It's something a lot of people would rather forget about, so I can't imagine that making a drama out of what happened is particularly helpful."

Mr Tse acknowledged that some sections of the Chinese community had been "less than enthusiastic" about the play, which ends with the stowaways banging on the sides of the container and falling unconscious but does not show the discovery of the bodies. "It was inspired by the story of the Dover 58 but it is not about the actual people. It is much more a poetic look at the human condition. We want to encourage people to think of immigrants and asylum-seekers as individuals who have people who care for them and love them. The point ... is to remind people of their humanity."