How to Start a Riot

Living, as I do, in one of the London areas most badly affected by last summer’s riots, it was fascinating to watch this show almost exactly a year to the day. In the aftermath of those events the government was swift to punish and condemn, but there was little serious attempt to ask why a local problem in Tottenham set the whole Capital alight and ignited similar mayhem elsewhere. Maybe such things defy simple explanation.

Worklight Theatre Company have take an excellent stab at such an explanation in this show. They have obviously done tremendous amounts of research - including consulting both social and crowd psychologists - and the sheer weight of information and verbatim reporting is remarkable. The Company are pretty unique and it’s hard to define what it is they do. This show is part lecture, part sketch show, part ingenious light show… but it really works. Michael Woodman at the keyboard invites us to examine the riots and their causes. More importantly, he challenges us to examine the terminology that grows up around such phenomena – ‘mob rule’, ‘mindless acts’, even ‘riot police’. Woodman suggests that the latter are just ordinary coppers in a different costume. In other words, it’s all about perception.

That all sounds very dry and academic, but nothing could be further from the truth. Woodman is joined on stage by Joe Sellman-Leava and Callum Elliot-Archer, and the trio’s acting, vocal, and physical skills are employed in making this small stage teem with characters. They are aided in that by their ingenious use of lights built into their costumes and literally on their fingertips. Much use is also made of about fourteen luminous ‘skulls’ or ‘heads’ (it’s actually hard to define them more succinctly). They are used to represent characters, provide menace and pathos, and even explain statistics! The soundscape is brilliant and multi-layered; a recording of how to behave in a riot delivered at the beginning as an airline safety demonstration is brilliant touch. To have that recording made by a young child is chilling and makes you think about so many issues at once.

And that’s why this production is so extraordinary. It makes you think. One of theatre’s original functions was to be subversive and question the status quo. In the aftermath of the riots even some of my more liberal-minded friends were calling for the birch and National Service and to “take away their benefits”. Oh, and hanging. And the army on the streets. A year on, their knee-jerk reaction seems not only absurd but dangerous. Are you aware that since last summer the ancient Riot Act has been used to convict people? That a riot is now defined as 12 people or more (yes, that’s TWELVE) gathered with the potential to commit a breach of the peace. When a person is sent to prison for stealing a bottle of water and a swindling banker is allowed to keep his bonus and nobody cares very much then there’s something wrong. Methodically, without emotion and, purely in theatrical terms professionally stunning, this production shows there might be a better way to think about things.

Since you’re here…

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The Blurb

If the actions are 'mindless', what's in the mind? Based on the work of leading crowd psychologists, three performers use text, torchlight and physical theatre to unpick the presumed causes of civil unrest. www.worklighttheatre.co.uk.

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