Eavesdropping on a
Dominic Cavendish reviews Come Out
Eli at Arcola Theatre, E8
This is an astonishing piece of documentary theatre.
Last Christmas, Hackney resident Alecky Blythe, an actress, found
herself caught up in what was to become - over 15 gruelling days -
Britain's longest siege.
Graham Road, where Yardie gangster Eli Hall became embroiled
in an armed stand-off with police, swiftly turned into a
cordoned-off no-go zone, with much of the surrounding area affected,
too. Fired up with curiosity and equipped with a minidisc recorder,
Blythe headed out on to the streets to interview as many people as
The result of her journalistic inquiry, licked into
shape by dramaturg Judith Johnson and staged now at the Arcola
Theatre in nearby Dalston, provides a remarkable overview of a
community struggling to come to terms with an exceptional, sometimes
Rather than converting her material into a
conventional play text, Blythe has employed an innovative technique
whereby she and four talented fellow actors - Don Gilet, Miranda
Hart, Phil Marshall and Sarah Quist - repeat segments of recorded
speech as it's played back live through minidisc earphones. Every
hesitation and non sequitur has been preserved so that what you hear
sounds like genuinely overheard conversation.
The biggest surprise is that the evening contains so
many laughs. These are, admittedly, partly at the expense of the
interviewees - 47 in total - whose inarticulacy, incoherence and
preoccupation with ostensibly trivial detail are at times
breathtaking. Nevertheless, the humour remains warmly affectionate,
and Blythe's collage of voices stirs a strange kind of pride in this
inner-city melting pot.
We hear from the gawpers who loiter around the
cordons ("It's either the cemetery, the hospital or prison [for
him], innit?"). Bored, cold coppers outline their duties and explain
their controversial softly-softly approach.
Exasperated local shopkeepers subside from
Blitz-style bonhomie into despair as trade dwindles, while the
complaints of those contending with severe restrictions on movement,
and even incarceration within their homes, are spliced with the
observations of neighbours for whom the whole thing is almost a
holiday. In the show's biggest coup, Blythe (played by Hart) coaxes
Hall's hostage, Paul Okere (played by Gilet), to talk about his
ordeal but must keep rebuffing his requests for sex.
As the costs escalate and frustration mounts, an
atmosphere of damage and waste settles over the vignettes. Pulled
tightly together by one young man's incomprehensible actions, this
fragile neighbourhood, which comes to wish so fervently for his
departure, is left contemplating
the senselessness of his suicide and nursing indefinable
feelings of loss. Absolutely riveting.
Until Sept 27; tickets 020 7503 1646
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