September 10, 2014

Join the (Little) Revolution

Ian played by Barry McCarthy (left), Alan Dein played by Rufus Wright (center) and Alecky Blythe as herself (right) with her recurrently occurring Dictaphone, photo courtesy of Manuel Harlan

             After my four-month hiatus from London, I arrived safely and soundly back to the great city just over a week ago. With university classes the furthest thing from my mind, one of my first orders of business was to meet up with the Almeida. Before the boxes in my flat were even unpacked, I enthusiastically made my third trip to date to the quaint theatre in Islington. (For a refresher on the other plays I have seen at the Almeida, read my American Psycho review here and my 1984 review here).

     This time, the subject matter was slightly more somber and heavily weighted, due to the playwright’s direct interaction with real world events. I’m referring to the London riots of 2011, the events of which Alecky Blythe revisited in her verbatim play Little Revolution. This was my first experience attending a verbatim performance. In fact, there were many theatre firsts for me on that evening.

Kyle (Bayo Gbadamosi) gives the police a piece of his mind, photo courtesy of  Manuel Harlan

             Verbatim theatre uses the spoken, unaltered words of actual people who have been interviewed. In this case, Blythe toted her Dictaphone around the streets of London while the riots and relief efforts were occurring, in the desire to create what she coined a “documentary play.” She spoke with others about the unfolding events, managing to capture the true essence and emotion of what was intended in that instance.

             In regards to how that translates to the stage, the original accent, intonation, delivery, and speech pattern of the witnesses all remain the same, with actors filling in for the original individuals. Expect word for word reproductions, where no “um’s,” “ah’s,” awkward silences, or personality quirks go amiss. A very nice touch was when Blythe (starring as herself) forgot to turn her Dictaphone on. We watched on in silence as Blythe and Colin (played by Lucian Msamati) mimed to one another, only comprehending the few fragments we could lip-read.

Hackney residents Colin (Lucian Msamati) and Deanne (Clare Perkins), photo courtesy of Manuel Harlan

             From the onset of entering the stalls where I was seated, I was awestruck by the Almeida’s transformation yet again. The stage has morphed every time I have visited, adapting to each creative endeavor. In place of a stage, there was instead what I can only refer to as an allocated show space. The auditorium made standing seats available, while all clear dividing lines between seated audience members and the cast had vanished. I felt as if it was “story time,” and like a gaggle of geese, we were all crowded around, ears perked, ready to be told a good tale. 

Lloyd Hutchinson lays down the law, photo courtesy of Manuel Harlan
             Perhaps a community meeting would be a more appropriate comparison. The energy of the play was so electrically charged, mimicking the pent-up anger and frustration, impassioned cries, and sometimes nonsensical nature that surrounded the riots. Blythe clutched her Dictaphone for dear life, especially during one scene when she was confronted by a looter concerned about whether she had any photo evidence of his misdeed. 

Rez Kempton as Siva (center), whose shop has been destroyed in the riots, surrounded by the support of the Community Chorus, photo courtesy of Manuel Harlan

             Starring alongside Blythe were professional and non-professional actors alike. Little Revolution honed in on Hackney particularly. This is why I was delighted to learn that of the 31 volunteers (aged 16-74) forming the Community Chorus, some of them were recruited from Hackney, along with Islington and other London boroughs. This added to the already raw performance, granting it more depth and sincerity. 

Mother Jane (Ronni Ancona) voices her concerns about the police mistreatment of her son, photo courtesy of  Manuel Harlan

             During the show, I was subjected to a few heart-stopping scenarios. Outside of normal procedure, the theatre doors that open into the foyer of the Almeida flew wide open. Clanging and clattering noises and blinding lights overpowered the arena in a frenzied recreation of the riots. The cast began “looting,” grasping Pringle cans, a television set, and whatever else they could get their hands on as they made their speedy getaway. This “mini” revolution as the sage Colin commented was hardly any different to any major revolution. He observed that they all have fire and they all have looting. 

Dynamic duo Tony (Michael Shaeffer) and Sarah (Imogen Stubbs) take a stand to help Siva, photo courtesy of Manuel Harlan

             Resentment was omnipresent in the show, whether towards the police, the looters, or the younger residents of Hackney. However, we did glimpse the other side of the story, a story that hinted towards hope. Couple Tony (Michael Shaeffer) and Sarah (Imogen Stubbs) rallied a team together to host a tea party for raising moral (with an unfortunately low turnout), while meetings were organized and flyers handed out in the hopes of lessening the criminalization of Hackney youth. 

Melanie Ash speaks out as an activist while the Community Chorus listens in the background, photo courtesy of Manuel Harlan
             Blythe’s social commentary exemplified a community of people both simultaneously wanting to help and wanting to complain while turning a blind eye. Ignorance is indeed bliss, but then there’s the other saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Little Revolution offered plenty of nervous laughter to go around and there is always plenty of tea to go around. The activists ironically utilized stationary and tea products boasting, “I love Hackney.” While this sentiment remained genuine, the words are empty unless they are supported with actions reflecting it. Let us leave on the note of Ian’s (Barry McCarthy) perfectly succinct food for thought: “The idea is just to talk to one another.” Let us not just talk, but let us listen. 

Ian sums it up: "The idea is just to talk to one another," photo courtesy of Manuel Harlan

             Get involved and catch Little Revolution at the Almeida Theatre up until October 4th. Book your tickets here.  

             [Author’s Note: London was not the only area affected by violence and carnage during the summer or 2011. Manchester, just to name one city, was also hit and I was there during the time all of these events were surfacing. I was on the last bus allowed out of the city center of Manchester for that evening. I only learned this later, alongside the news that the Miss Selfridge store I ate lunch across from had been set on fire by rioters.]

Sarah adds some flower power to the revolution, photo courtesy of Manuel Harlan

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