It is three summers ago that London burned and that verbatim playwright Alecky Blythe (London Road) took to the streets of Hackney, recording her conversations with the local community. Better late than never, these have now been moulded into an Almeida production in which the cast are fed the original audio through earphones. In addition to an excellent ensemble of professional actors, there is a community chorus of thirty whose presence shapes the piece into a visually dynamic and convincing whole. They too are equipped with earphones and form as much part of the action as the core cast (with spot-on performances by Ronni Ancona and Lucian Msamati, to name but two).
Centred around Siva’s (Rez Kempton) destroyed off licence, we follow several members of the community as they resolve to take a stand. Without making any clear political statement, Blythe has created a realistic impression of the endeavours of a neighbourhood to do something, ultimately nodding to the inherent egocentrism and territorial thinking in all of us (“Some people talk about it and some people live it. We actually live it”). The self-important priest, the hippie, the activist and the aloof barber: all are motivated differently to be part of solutions, ranging from a campaign against the criminalisation of young people to a sponsored tea party.
The effect of all this is marvellous. The sense of chaos, much helped by Ian MacNeil’s disordered set and a disturbing sound design by Paul Arditti, draws the audience into the play. Joe Hill-Gibbins masterminds a snapshot-mode of staging – scenes change at the speed of a camera shutter – that makes the 90 minutes that the show lasts feel like a lot less. As Blythe (playing a caricatured version of herself) musters up the courage to be as close to the rioting as possible, so we as an audience feel we cannot escape its dangers.
At the same time, Little Revolution is filled with humorous situations and, for all the seriousness of the subject, most of the time the audience is thoroughly entertained. It is especially the fact that, for once, on-stage speech is truly lifelike and includes stutters, mispronunciations and human-warped, incomplete reasoning. The latter, I felt, makes up much of what Blythe’s play is about: an insight into a community’s reaction to something too big. Without being too cynical, the desire to take action (Marks & Spencer’s slightly dubious involvement in the tea party epitomises the sense of opportunity to shine) is also very much a desire to quench the thirst for personal satisfaction with one’s actions.
Little Revolution is another commanding piece from the Islington powerhouse, nimbly merging the drama of 2011 with some theatrical delight to paint a picture of a society reluctantly united, while class differences are exposed. Do not miss.
Little Revolution is playing at the Almeida Theatre until 4 October. For more information and tickets, visit the Almeida Theatre website.