“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.