Review: Little Revolution, created by Alecky Blythe, at the Almeida theatre

Little Revolution poster“What do you think about the London riots?” Few questions are as loaded as this. It’s what we think, what we want to think, what we say, what we mean. And then it’s what happened. Because something happened to someone. Alecky Blythe – of London Road acclaim – attempts to unpack meaning and fact by taking the direct approach: verbatim theatre, the words of the people, immediate access to the energy of place and time. Does she succeed? To a degree.

Unsurprisingly, the play exists in intertwined moments: the writer is at the centre of it, facilitator, observer, actor (in every sense of the word: Alecky Blythe plays herself – or rather a writer called Alecky). The play is at its best the closer it stays to the riots and director Joe Hill-Gibbins does a great job capturing those moments with brilliant adrenalised energy and a surprising clarity of thought: the conflict crystallises the argument and the staging – with the auditorium in the round and part of the wall between auditorium and foyer missing – delivers a heart-in-mouth experience. In one scene, two different arguments flare simultaneously, and we are transfixed by the threat of violence. At another time, we find ourselves one block from a burning car, with the sound carrying the action and the crowd overspilling into our space. Much of the action and energy is introduced at the foyer before it is brought into the theatre. I would be quite happy to stay with a drink at the bar for the whole performance to see how it looks on the other side.

The play stumbles as it moves away from the scene of the crime (metaphorically speaking). It’s not that it doesn’t have anything to say but suddenly we are ensconced in campaigning, agendas (in fact there is a meeting with an agenda) and middle class preoccupations. The voice of the rioters is lost. Much of it is funny (Marks and Spencers makes an appearance), occasionally sharp, but also unable to escape this point of view. Talk about the observer effect. The presence of the playwright introduces that element and the medium is the message.

Even with these limitations, the actors deliver deft performances of considerable insight: Imogen Stubbs and  Michael Shaeffer strike the right balance between innocent absurdity and self-conscious vulnerability as middle class couple Tony and Sarah. Rez Kempton is captivating in fragile bewilderment as Siva – the man with no voice in the middle of the action. Rufus Wright does impressive work in different roles, most notably as a policeman and – on a lighter note – a journalist with a voice that could only mark him as a BBC Radio 4 broadcaster. Lloyd Hutchinson switches effortlessly and convincingly between characters with wildly different point of views and Melanie Ash has the right kind of punchiness as Sadie. The only portrayal I had a problem with was Ronni Ancona as a mother from one of the poorer estates. It felt too close to chavvy characters in sketch shows, with the wrong tone for this play.

The poster of Little Revolution is a brick smashing a Keep Calm and Carry On mug. In this play, we don’t see enough of the brick. The mug is intact and has I Love Hackney in pink fluorescent letters written on it. This is a valuable point in itself:  we have to push theatre outside its comfort zone. Little Revolution goes some way but not the whole distance.

P.S. The open plan approach between foyer and auditorium has its downsides: there was a note in the toilets not to use the handryer during performance as the sound would carry into the auditorium.

3 responses to “Review: Little Revolution, created by Alecky Blythe, at the Almeida theatre

  1. I think you’re v generous, else only today, a few days after your visit, this production has lost all worthwhile dramatic energy and meaningful insight. The only interesting thought that entered my head (possibly engineered by me to prevent deep annoyance setting in) was that if this play is an attempt at satire, it has failed – satire of the looting youth and satire of the middle classes – and specifically satire of the safe professionals and the arty class of Hackney, that very special London enclave of rich/poor people who otherwise live in and try to share a hopeful and vibrant intercommunity. No, I don’t live there but I know plenty of people who do. The stage setting looked hopeful but progress was killed by misfiring acting from middle class actors attempting to overtly badly imitate middle class Hackney types. The playwright herself, Imogen Stubbs and Ronni Ancona were the worst – verbatim theatre does play-to-the-gallery lovey acting stylee. What’s most annoying is that we’re supposed to be annoyed by these types so that annoyance is intentional so that’s OK then. No it’s not. The genuine few moments of truth and warmth and reality expressed by other commmunity cast members were minimal compared to the unending oily satire of self-imterested do-gooders There is no real insight, intentional again I suppose, into the whys and wherefores of the riots, its domino effect unleashed so violently across London, or even any mention until right at the very forced end, of its initial spark, the shooting of Mark Duggan. There were moments when I thought this is going to take a turn for the better, it didn’t. I admit it didn’t help that in my direct sightline were David Hare and Nicole Farhi – he seemingly chewing a wasp and she calming his troubled waters. On the plus side, the rather lovely and composed John Hopkins opposite reminded me to buck up. Liked this theatre in the round – wish they’d keep it that way, all sightlines seemed good so there’s a bonus.

    • Thank you for this, all very interesting. I think the whole thing got trapped into a middle class approach, furthermore it got trapped into being defensive about it. And in those discussions and meetings, there was no sense of community, just silos and agendas. Re sightlines. I am told the ones at the circle aren’t as good, which is something to bear in mind. Thanks again.

  2. Guess what, I may be paying it more than its due, but this play (infuriatingly executed as it appears to be) turns out to linger, like some creeping social reassurance, it indulges the idea that even in the face of exploding discontent and continuing injustice there’ll be no revolution here, here let us gently envisage that there will always be this England – hotchpotch Hackney as representative of us all – multifarious, ultimately decent human beings knitted together, allowing for the odd hissy fits, police and public, young, old, some silly, some vain, some wise – moderation prevails when all is said and done. Now this is all looking like half verbatim theatre, half concocted in-joke – we are allowed to laugh at the stupid antics of all concerned – afterall this little revolution bears none of the heavy-duty implications, gun response units, tanks, water cannons and military-trained police tactics of, say, Ferguson. This play does not envisage oppression of that sort here – a notion as intentionally naiive as it is hopelessly optimistic. Damn that’s why it’s still lingering, I want to be hopeful too. Nevertheless it’s still just so weird – an anti-intellectual, anti-political theatre piece by this creative team.

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