“You’re curious, that’s why you’re here”
The personal connections that one can easily build up in a city such as London are so wide-ranging that the riots of 2011 would most likely have affected us all in some particular way or other. For me, as a former resident of Hackney Downs, it was the sight of an innocuous convenience store being looted that really got me, it was a shop I’d passed every day from which I’d picked up many a bottle of Diet Coke or a lottery ticket and to see it being gutted felt very much not in tune with what Mark Duggan’s death should have stood for.
So I was fascinated to see that Alecky Blythe’s new play Little Revolution was focusing on this very shop and the community action that arose from its ransacking. Though 2011’s London Road saw her break through to mainstream success, Blythe has long been a proponent of verbatim theatre, by which she records interviews with real people at the heart of a certain issue and constructs a play out of their exact words – accents, inflections, verbal tics and all.
So what we, er, get is a sort of, kind of, flow of the natural rhythm of human speech you know, dialogue that reflects the way we actually speak. I think, well I mean, um…I haven’t really seen enough of verbatim theatre, because that’s what they call it, to really have a, you know, opinion on whether I truly like it as a style or not. But I will say this, I say I will say this, as oddly alienating as it may initially seem (the actors are fed the dialogue through earpieces so they can mirror it exactly), one becomes accustomed to it very quickly and can easily forget it’s even a part of the show.
As for the play itself, it’s an intriguing take on the riots which focuses away from the rioters themselves to concentrate instead on the communities around them. A thoroughly middle class group of local residents who start a campaign to raise money for the shopkeeper Siva are contrasted with the more working class women who are spearheading a movement to support Hackney’s disaffected youth and in the middle of it all is a playwright called Alecky who is recording it all – the potentially meta-application of Blythe playing herself is hinted at in the opening but is left as an accepted fact in the end.
And she nails so much truth about the uneasy faultlines of a community where rich and poor, black and white rub up without ever really getting each other. The tricky balance between liberal do-goodism and genuinely community-minded good intentions (a line she acknowledges she has to tread herself) is explored, as is the close-mindedness of so many people to the root causes of so much of the violence, an unwillingness to really deal with the key problems but rather just push them away from the doorstep so they don’t inconvenience us.
Joe Hill-Gibbins has reconceived the Almeida into a community centre in the round complete with chipboard walls and plastic chairs, but the real coup in Ian MacNeil’s design is the exposure of the giant doors into the foyer. From here, a large community chorus brims with fierce vitality and explosive energy as they burst periodically into the theatre itself and create the (often unseen) noises of young people carousing. That we’re never quite not sure whether they’re in the middle of looting and rioting or simply partying at a local do mirrors the ambivalence towards young’uns and our tendency to direct blame towards them regardless.
In reducing them to an amorphous mass, albeit one with a hugely visceral presence, one can’t help but long for more of an articulate voice from their perspective – it’s the one thing missing here – but equally it just isn’t the playwright’s intention to do so. A strong cast discharge their duties well – Imogen Stubbs and Michael Shaeffer shine as the leaders of the do-gooders and seeing Lucian Msamati rap awkwardly is an unexpectedly genuine pleasure. And what Blythe does present, through this particular focus, is, well, incisive, errrr, intimate, and um, interesting.