The Theatreguide.London Review
Almeida Theatre Autumn 2014
Alecky Blythe's verbatim report on the riots of August 2011 has a surprising and ultimately winning satiric edge that keeps you off balance and may in that way capture the confusion of the events more fully than a more conventional approach might.
(Reminder: After police shot and killed a man in north London, a peaceful demonstration turned into riot and looting, and within days there were copycat riots in cities throughout England.)
As is her mode, Blythe went out on the streets of Hackney in East London with her recorder, interviewing, eavesdropping and generally collecting voices, which she has now shaped into this script, with actors speaking the actual words of real people.
Although she did capture some street voices, the bulk of Blythe's play is devoted to a group of middle class Hackney residents who respond in an almost archetypal way to the plight of their local newsagent whose shop was destroyed – they form a discussion group, turn the poor confused guy into a symbol, alert the media and arrange corporate sponsorship for a fundraising tea party.
They look very comical and irrelevant, except that they do raise the money and the guy gets his shop rebuilt.
Similarly Blythe herself, who appears as a character in the play, comes across as incredibly na´ve and a lousy interviewer with an irritating nervous giggle, except that she does manage to be in the right places at the right times and capture a piece of the story others miss.
That double vision runs through the whole play. Blythe finds some local teenagers who are not taking part in the rioting, mainly because they're too dim to realise what's going on. A local barber comes across as pompous and aloof, but he makes some of the most cogent comments. Political activists strive to build some reforms out of the wreckage, but keep getting distracted by turf wars with each other.
It's almost as if Blythe is discovering that virtue and foolishness are inseparable, and it is the people one is most inclined to dismiss as irrelevant who actually get things done.
As I mentioned, Alecky Blythe appears in the play and in fact plays herself, with a large cast including Imogen Stubbs, Barry McCarthy and Lucian Msamati supplemented by a 'Community Chorus' of about thirty Hackney residents, generally seen either rushing about looting or attending the fundraising tea.
In Blythe's extreme version of verbatim theatre the actors don't just speak a text based on her recordings, but wear earphones with the original voices playing in their ears for them to parrot exactly, down to accents, pauses, stumbles and that nervous laugh.
(I've written elsewhere about my doubts about this method, and you can skip this paragraph if you wish. It seems to me that if the original sounds are so important to Blythe she should edit her tapes into a radio montage of the actual voices. If she wants professionals to play the roles, she should let them listen to the tapes and use their talents to capture the sound. It's called acting. Using actors as parrots seems the worst of both worlds. End of rant.)
Shakespeare wrote that one could 'by indirections find directions out'. By letting herself be distracted by incidental and peripheral bits of the story Blythe illuminates the whole story in surprising and surprisingly entertaining ways.
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