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Little Revolution (Almeida Theatre)

October 1, 2014

Seen at the afternoon performance on 27th September 2014.

There’s pure gold sprinkled through the debris of this sprawling 90 minutes. Alecky Blythe performs in her own work, using the “verbatim method” (actors speaking words actually recorded by the author, in the tone and accent they hear) examining the 2011 London Riots.

Ms Blythe spent that scary time on the streets of Hackney, talking to residents, looters, shopkeepers, anyone who would speak to her. She then followed up at post-riot community events and edited the whole to perform with a cast of local people and actors.

Director Joe Hill-Gibbons stages her gleanings “in the round,” with the riot heard only as noises in the foyer, and the odd actor appearing with a cardboard box encasing expensive electronics (possibly unrelated to the play?). This is because the riot itself isn’t the focus of the piece, it’s all about the people.

The gold I referred to at the beginning of the piece isn’t in the play itself but in the anger Blythe’s interviews generate in the watcher. The shaking of complacency is the most valuable asset of all. Her well-chosen selection of subjects play out the proof that there is no coherent society any longer – and that we have simply lost the ability to communicate across social boundaries.

On the one hand, a “group from the square” seize on bewildered newsagent Siva (nicely confused Rez Kempton) and use their connections to get Marks & Spencer to sponsor a “heal the community” street party, put Siva on breakfast TV and of course re-open as soon as possible.

Across the road, still Siva’s customers, but grateful for just £300 to run their own “Help Youth against Crime” campaign, the “estate residents” are the ones actually experiencing every aspect of the conflict, yet seem doomed to remain always voices without the power to be heard.

Resentment, lack of understanding and empathy, are at the core of Blythe’s work. If one side understood that it was general resentment of how the other is treated by every strata of authority: police, council, welfare, that they take for granted… perhaps the riots would never have happened. These thoughts are the strength of the play.

The weaknesses, though, are myriad. The under-educated, morally, intellectually and socially, participants barely get a mention, and there’s a distinct failure to draw clear conclusions from what has been explored. To end on a shrug seems to reduce the piece to voyeurism when it could have been a laboratory of fresh viewpoints and insights using a unique theatre technique.

Still, the cast is mostly strong. Good to see Imogen Stubbs back on stage as well-meaning committee type Sarah; Ronni Ancona and Melanie Ash turn in convincing worried working-class mothers, while Barry McCarthy is the quintessential ‘revered senior’ and Lucian Msamati the barber who knows. Alecky Blythe herself seems slightly uncomfortable with the attention, but her presence is a welcome insight into how the production was created.

Had this tried to hit fewer targets, and taken a less busily elaborate staging route, it may have been more powerful. As it stands, to allow anyone in the audience to take away a feeling of failure is a brave choice, and for that reason alone, the whole is to be applauded. It’ll solve nothing, but perhaps it may spark recognition of issues, if not actually begin the dialogue those issues require if they are to be addressed.

 

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