I really empathise with the bloke at the start of Little Revolution. One of the first of Alecky Blythe’s wide-eyed interviewees caught on some afternoon on the 6th or 7thof August 2011, he’s had a hell of a time finding a shop selling cigarettes, one that hasn’t boarded itself up against the expected night-time hordes. I felt much the same way, nicotine-starved in a house just north of the police-line in Peckham, watching the rolling coverage on the telly and scrolling through social media feeds reporting the crowd’s progress towards my sensibly shut-up tobacconist. It was a strange season, exciting and a little frightening to watch from the fringes, and it was doubtlessly doubly thrilling and terrifying to be caught up in the middle.
Blythe hit the streets of Hackney with her digital tape recorder when the first bricks flew, and Little Revolution has emerged after a lengthy hiatus as a scrappy B-side or an off-cut, a few snatches of life on the edges of a great event that strains for significance but collapses into a resigned shrug. She fails to reach its epicentre, she finds no ordering truths or principles in the chaos.
As Nick Holland pointed out to me on the tube home from the theatre, Blythe’s Dictaphone was running in Hackney while her London Road ran at the National Theatre, and it’s this vast divide between worlds, behind the motives and motivations of medium and subject, between the indirectly and directly concerned, which Little Revolution makes most clear.
Blythe plays a version of herself that’s a manifestation of that horrible feeling of listening to yourself on tape. She’s patronising, try-hard and desperately irritating as she plaintively pursues her subjects with cries of ‘I write plays!’ and tries to explain what verbatim means without sounding like a tosser. It’s a neat construction, at least at first, acknowledging the incongruity of her presence in these communities she barely comprehends and of the entire ethical mess that her chosen theatrical form throws up. It acknowledges the first and most obvious criticisms of her work, but totally fails to short-circuit them. There they are, bold as brass: ‘What are you doing here? Who is this for? Who will it ever be for?’ Underlining vital questions is only one half of bravery, attempting an answer is the other.
This divide, this class divide and racial divide to look it full in the face, is more than the backdrop to Little Revolution, thanks to Blythe’s choice to follow a local Marks & Spencer’s backed campaign to reimburse a looted shop-owner, it becomes the entire theme. Blythe spends time with the couple who initiated it, flower powered Burning Man regulars Sarah and John. Like most of the characters, they are mined for moments of unguarded snobbishness or gaucheness, at one point explicitly asking Blythe if she plans to make a mockery of them. She does anyway, and everywhere there is a dull, sliding sense that the only real pleasures of this show, the laughs that drive its scattered and discursive narrative, are just the moments of quirky comedy that emerge from a re-enactment and over-exposure of conventional conversations.
The play is stuffed with ‘characters’, from the grandfathery local councillor to the wife-beater clad head of the residents association. At times it’s not a million miles away from Phoenix Nights, at others it approaches The Vicar of Dibley. As enjoyable as much of this is, surely Blythe is netting small fry rather than landing the real issues? Surely these frothy giggles are the absolute minnows of verbatim theatre?
Blythe presents other divides more explicitly, including the divisions rent in communities by clashing ideologies of punishment and reparation. There are issues here that are screaming to be probed with a tool capable of deeper, more incisive surgery than Blythe and her microphone are able to conduct. Little Revolution admits these failings in Alecky’s attempts to rush across the room to catch relevant snippets only to be buttonholed by an incompetent local performance poet, but failings they remain. There’s a unity of failed and questionable intention in the work of Blythe and the middle-class organisers she meets, a failure to connect and convince, but it’s revealed to very little purpose.
More troubling than the content and the form is the presentation Blythe’s script has been given in Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production. Hill-Gibbins uses his talent for the broken and the half-made to evocatively punctuate and frame the verbatim interviews themselves, as lights flick on and off at just the wrong time and the Almeida retrogressed into rehearsal room. But his use of a community chorus, skilled as a great many of them are, is genuinely problematic.
There’s the economic question, for starters. Apparently ‘At its heart, Little Revolution is a play about community’, but as members of the chorus are described as ‘volunteers’, it seems the ‘community’ Blythe and Hill-Gibbins have constructed is as divided as the newly gentrified streets of Hackney that proved a tinderbox for the rage and disenchantment of the dispossessed. It’s only exacerbated by the use that Hill-Gibbins puts them to – running back and forth clutching televisions as faceless looters, jostling Alecky and huddling in hooded groups. These moments often fail as drama, but they’re almost uniformly successful as hypocrisy.
For all of Blythe’s efforts, Little Revolution gets nowhere close to the heart of the matter. Alecky, like her middle-class subjects and her middle-class audience, is protected and secluded from the beating core of the riots by a cloud of collective ignorance and bafflement, too scared to push herself into the fray and unwilling, on this evidence at least, to nail any flag to any mast anywhere whatsoever. When the little dust Little Revolution kicks up has settled, the divides look as indivisible as ever, the young and the voiceless yet again displaced and silenced by the old and the vocal.