BWW Reviews: LITTLE REVOLUTION, Almeida Theatre, September 3rd 2014
Alecky Bythe's Little Revolution is a new verbatim play, in the same vein of documentary theatremaking as London Road, with which Blythe had such success at the National Theatre. In August 2011, Blythe took her dictaphone to the streets of Hackney, where people were gathering. In Little Revolution she plays herself, interviewing those involved in the riots (and in thier aftermath) which started with the fatal shooting of an unarmed man, Mark Duggan, by police in Tottenham.
Little Revolution builds a picture of an entire community caught up in the action, from the middle-class residents of Clapton Square throwing a tea party and starting a fund to get a looted shopkeeper back on his feet, to those campaigning out of the Pembury Estate to stop the criminalisation of Hackney's youth, to the actual young people themselves - though not enough of them, I felt.
In the wake of the riots, one of the characters, painting herself as at the epicentre of events, complains that "people want to get on that bandwagon. It's not their story. It's not their story." It's ironic in context, but Little Revolution does a good job of presenting the characters neutrally and leaving it up to the audience whose story this really is. Asked what has caused the riots, residents raise the stop and search police practices, the cutting of EMA and the fact that there is nothing for young people to do. You long to hear one of the rioters explain their motivation but, as with the actual riots, there isn't a manifesto; there's general unrest but no articulated cause.
The piece open with Blythe, playing herself, thanking us for coming along this Saturday morning to try out for the community chorus - the 31 volunteers from boroughs including Islington and Hackney who bring the crowd scenes to life. As she enacts, word for word (with no nervous laugh omitted), a scene in which, dictaphone still running, she casts from the community, she explains her process and turns a mirror on us: "Nothing is written. All the words that the actors speak are words that I have collected," she says in the programme, "[the actors] say the words that I've collected - not just what a person has said, but also with the original accent, intonation, delivery and speech pattern". The result is dialogue that's so naturalistic it is sometimes difficult to follow, though it's always powerful: people mumble, talk over each other and get into tangles of ineloquent enthusiasm. It's the opposite of stilted and, because they are exact replicas of real-life people, the characters are instantly engaging.
The professional cast mix seamlessly with the community chorus. There are excellent performances - detailed and amusing - from an ensemble cast that play multiple parts. Lucian Msamati is an expert observer as Colin the hairdresser, and Imogen Stubbs and Michael Schaffer get a great deal of comic mileage from their middle-class 'I [heart] Hackney' bag wearing characters.
Little Revolution is about community but it's also about the gap that keeps communities apart. The programme gives stats for wages in London: "London incomes are the most unequal in any region in England, with 16% of the population in the lowest tenth of the country's earners and 17% in the highest tenth. The gaps between each borough's highest and lowest earners is also greater than the national averages." I'm glad the glossy Almeida programmes are being put to good use, but it's hard not to wish that some of these stats had been voiced by the rioters themselves, in 2011. There is an excellent scene in Little Revolution, an argument between two black youths, a white policeman and a white resident, in which all talk over each other and the hierarchy of social control is momentarily inverted. There is real drama here - and an articulate speech by one of the boys in defence of his friend being arrested. It's a chance encounter and the problem with documentary theatremaking is that you have to be in the right place at the right time to create this kind of drama.
Blythe's presence makes this well-executed piece of verbatim theatre particularly honest. As a picture of what happened in the wake of the riots three summers ago it is excellent, but this is the story of those who got caught up in events, not those who started them and, as ever, it's uncomfortable being part of a nearly all-white audience watching a play about race with a mixed cast.