Some shows marinate in time. Immediate gratification fades or problematic satisfactions deepen over weeks. I came round to Little Revolution just a couple hours after it ended on Saturday night, over a fish supper and the walk home. It hadn’t been what I expected: with its poster image of a brick smashing into a ‘Keep calm and carry on’ mug, the Almeida Theatre promises an incendiary bulletin from the frontline. It turned out to be something more, and more interesting.
Alecky Blythe’s verbatim theatre – based on edited interviews which play in the actors’ earpieces, their tics, pauses, stumbles faithfully reproduced in performance – has been widely praised. Her plays have examined both quiet pockets of British life (suburban brothels, senior citizens at play) and major events like a siege (in her debut, Come Out Eli) or serial killing (the justly acclaimed verbatim-musical London Road). In summer 2011, demonstrations against the killing by police of an unarmed man called Mark Duggan grew into widespread unrest, protest and looting across London and in other British cities. ‘In the summer of 2011, London was burning,’ says the Alemida’s marketing copy. ‘Alecky Blythe took her dictaphone to the streets…’
I can understand why Londoners might have been frustrated at the lack of foursquare immediacy in Little Revolution. The riots seemed to indicate a fundamental truth about our city – that Britain’s untiring capital, its earth-hath-not-anything glory, was really a keg packed with wriggling, acrimonious fragments, ready to explode. Making sense of it became our recurrent conversation – everyone had a theory, for a time we were all bus queue economists and pinot grigio philosophers. Blythe reports some of those conversations in the later parts of Little Revolution, as locals unpick social exclusion or pure criminality, but speculating about underlying causes isn’t her focus.
The play’s title – a quote from a conversation with Lucian Msamati’s studiedly unbothered barber – is another misleading swerve, in that it might suggest reports from the frontline of London’s burning summer, both epicentre reportage and socio-political context. We’ve seen this in Gillian Slovo’s drama The Riots, compiling witness statements into an unofficial public enquiry that followed the unfolding events. When I saw The Riots in 2012 at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Tottenham, just streets away from where Mark Duggan was shot, this sense of a public tribunal was strong. The soberly involving production was followed by a fitfully electric talkback session with Pauline Pearce, who had been celebrated when her furious despair (‘we’re not gathering together to fight for a cause, we’re running down Foot Locker and thieving shoes’) was captured on camera. From the audience, one spectator after another spoke about being stopped and searched, or their own reasons for disenchantment with local policing.
Similar themes are apparent in Little Revolution – ish – but mediated in less predictable fashion. Short scenes from the night of the riots in her Hackney locality mostly show Blythe, dictaphone arm nervously extended, asking people where the action is, fearing she’s missed it, nervously hovering on the edge of conflict. It’s a method built on indirection, of seeming to miss the point.
These dispatches from the front – alright, from the side – stipple an evening which gradually builds around two local campaigns in the aftermath of the riots. One is led by residents of a Hackney square to support a newsagent, Siva Kandiah, whose shop had been destroyed. It attracts human-interest media coverage and support for its fundraising tea party from Marks & Spencer (a bemused German journalist casts doubt on the recuperative power of baked goods: kudos to Rufus Wright for his disdainful pronunciation of ‘muffins’). The other, from a neighbouring estate, protests against the criminalisation of Hackney youth but fails to win hearts and minds, let alone sponsored cupcakes.
Recent theatre has used the verbatim as fertile territory for new forms (I discuss some of them here). Even in this ‘purer’ style, the reality of Blythe’s dialogue doesn’t always feel really real. We’re so used to the versions of human speech smoothed into screen-friendly rhythms, or stylised into stage-speech, that these recorded versions can seem bumpy, almost bald. If nothing else, her plays prove that we are often such odd simulacra of ourselves. Honestly, are we ever remotely convincing, with our flailing vocals and pained self-presentation?
In Little Revolution, the main target of this approach is Blythe herself, variously and unsparingly presented as intrusive, timid, plastering conversations with a yelping giggle. I’ve heard her recorded voice at the beginning of previous shows, explaining to interviewees (and audiences) how her technique functions. Here she presents herself in person. Being a bit posh and a bit blonde is, I suspect, Blythe’s foot-in-the-door – she seems blatantly unthreatening, possibly even inept. But don’t be fooled into mistaking this whip-smart show for a shambles.
She has an intrusive transparency, as does the production by Joe Hill-Gibbins. His brilliantly fractured early modern tragedies (The Changeling at the Young Vic, Edward II at the National Theatre) had a piercing plywood modernity: he excavates old plays to make them new, in productions that show their workings. Hill-Gibbins does the same here: he and designer Ian MacNeil drag the Almeida’s crepuscular shabbiness into the light, reconfigured in the round, with a central island of tables and platforms, a scuffed arena for communal dispute and individual scraps of conversation.
Even more than in London Road, Blythe’s concern is the way in which we construct community: who is invited in or excluded; who runs into the wall that surrounds a group’s sympathies. It’s a poignant, chilling and politically charged subject.
In Little Revolution, she brilliantly dramatises how a community coalesces, and the ambiguities in that process. The newsagent Siva (Rez Kempton), sitting politely numb amid discussion, is largely marginal to his own campaign: barely consulted about developments, gently coerced into a television appearance, sitting tight while decisions lap around his feet. Even so, he becomes the poster boy for a stirring, successful operation, run by a disparate group of local worthies (representatives of church, state, media and middle-class liberalism) who can make things happen.
Blythe also visits (and helps staple leaflets for) another group, protesting against the way Hackney’s youth are treated as criminals. This is arguably a more potent concern, but no one is willing to get behind it – shopkeepers decline to display posters, meetings are poorly attended. Led by two dogged mothers on the estate (Ronni Ancona is fantastically clipped and aggrieved in one of these roles), they don’t get anywhere. Some issues – some theatrical subjects, perhaps – are just too big to handle. A community may struggle to address male-on-female violence or explosive urban unrest, but might just be able to restore their gardens or fundraise for a corner shop. In a political climate leaning hard on individual responsibility, Blythe delineates the harsh limits of localism.
One more thing: we need to talk about race, because nobody does in the play. When commentators described urban disaffection in the cities affected by the riots, they mostly meant young and they mostly meant black. The trigger point for that incendiary summer was the shooting of a black man in London. Yet most of the characters in Little Revolution are white – and, crucially, these include the driving figures of the two campaign groups. British black and Asian voices – those at the ‘heart’ of the community, whatever that may mean – are subdued, like Siva, or commenting from the edges: like the barber and other bystanders played by Msamati or the humorous neighbour brilliantly played by Clare Perkins, who comes into the looted newsagents for a rummage and, possibly, some free teabags, and who merrily quizzes the man from M&S about the cakes supplied for the tea party.
Several young, black performers are in the production’s ‘community chorus’, often voicing nervy or disaffected opinion on the night of the riots. Otherwise they remain marginal to the core discussions. This may reflect the access Blythe achieved, or her own interests – but I suspect it’s another question mark over ‘community’, and who gets to define it for civic consumption.
I’m still awaiting ‘my’ London riots play – one that nails the disorienting engagement of that period with the oblique acuity that Simon Stephens took off from the 7/7 bombings in Pornography. Little Revolution ends with a knowing gesture towards a similar manoeuvre; two years after her initial research, Blythe returns to the Hackney barbershop on the afternoon when the inquest into Duggan’s death reaches a conclusion (‘lawful killing‘). She prods the barber into watching the live announcement and voicing a response – an unabashedly manipulative attempt at a coda. He won’t draw a pithy line under the events for her, even though it’s clear that she’s done. She’s not part of this community. Who is?
Main picture: Michael Shaeffer in Little Revolution Photo: Manuel Harlan
16 September: updated with a brief discussion of race in the play – because we need to talk about that.
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