Verbatim theatre, in which the actual words spoken by participants in a real-life event are transcribed and turned into stage drama, and immersive theatre, in which audiences are plunged into the heart of the action, are two of the biggest theatrical innovations of the last decade. Now both combine in Little Revolution, a piece that's staged in an entirely reconfigured Almeida Theatre that has been re-made into the round, and has the audience arranged around a playing area in the middle that brings the action right up and close to us, with a cast of professional actors augmented by a community chorus of 31 volunteers that also participate throughout.
Alecky Blythe has been one verbatim theatre's pioneering exponents, with plays previously created at the Arcola, Bush and Royal Court, and a revolutionary show London Road at the National that opened up new possibilities for musical theatre as well by setting spoken dialogue to music.
She has also used the technique for a 2012 television film The Riots: In their Own Words that had actors recreating the words of people who had been involved directly in the London riots of the previous year. Now, she returns to the subject of the riots to offer a fevered impression of being caught at the heart of the riots, but more from the point of view of the victims caught in its path, and in particular focusing on a local Hackney shopkeeper whose shop was ransacked.
Blythe took herself to the streets in the midst of the riots to start collecting material for this piece, and she also puts herself at the heart of it (and plays herself) as a kind of meta-theatre demonstration of how the technique actually works. That much feels a little overly self-referential; there are bigger stories to tell here, and we don't really need to take up valuable stage time revisiting exactly how she made the show.
It creates an unnecessary distraction and raises a suspicion that the show is more interested in form than content, or at least context over story. It's a tall order, in any case, to distil so much street drama into an 85-minute piece, and there's something ultimately unsatisfactory about dramatic mix that has resulted.
The programme ends up having a lot more information and background than the play itself provides. But there's also no doubting the urgency of Joe Hill-Gibbons's production or the commitment of the sprawling cast to bring these vivid characters to life.
"absolutely compelling...diverse, full of potential, rife with simmering discord. I predict a hit. ."
Dominic Cavendish for Daily Telegraph
"The piece has moral urgency but fails to send you out into the night avid to see social change....Unintentionally self-indulgent."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"But while Little Revolution touches on interesting issues such as the resentment caused by gentrification, we see most of the characters too briefly, and it’s frustrating to hear little from the rioters. Instead the dominant voices are middle-class."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard