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Eavesdropping on a crisis
(Filed: 04/09/2003)

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 possible.

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 surreal event.

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

    10 January 2003[News]: Gunman in 15-day siege found dead in burning bedsit
    7 January 2003[News]: Siege gunman on 'mission from God'
    28 December 2002[News]: Siege continues after shots are fired in street

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  • External links  
    Come Out Eli - Arcola Theatre