Hackney people: Alecky Blythe
A profile of the Hackney-based playwright who uses the borough as her inspiration
"YOU could say that Hackney gave me my first big break,” says playwright Alecky Blythe.
“I realised I wanted to work in theatre because of a teacher, Mrs Blythe, who was head of speech and drama at my junior school. She had such an influence on me that I went on to adopt her surname. I was inspired to be an actor but, after graduating, no one would give me any work so I decided to make my own.”
Alecky had been, in her own words, ‘scrabbling around on the fringes’ for about seven years when she enrolled in a workshop run by Mark Wing-Davey.
A Hackney resident himself, he taught the technique for which Alecky, 15 years on, is now famous; recording testimonies from real people. Plays are built around their words and, when performed, those words are played to the actors through headphones and recited aloud for the audience to hear.
“After the workshop I asked Mark if I could use the method to write my own play,” says Alecky. “The idea was just to make a piece to show off my acting skills to agents and then maybe get a part in ‘The Bill’ and I’d be off!”
It didn’t quite happen that way, however. She continues: “I had just moved to Hackney and heard about a siege going on locally. I thought it might be an interesting setting to explore the idea of fear for a piece of theatre. When I arrived I got caught up in an entire story unravelling around me.”
The siege was caused by gangster Eli Hall, who, at the end of 2002, barricaded himself inside a bedsit on Marvin Street in what was to become one of the longest armed sieges in British history. Alecky arrived at the police cordon and began to talk to, and record, members of the crowd that had gathered, eventually securing an interview with the hostage, Paul Okere. The result was her first play, ‘Come Out Eli’, which was staged at the Arcola theatre in Dalston.
“It didn’t get me an acting agent,” laughs Alecky, “but it did get me one for my writing, and I decided to run with it.”
Plays that followed include ‘Cruising’, ‘The Girlfriend Experience’, ‘Do We Look Like Refugees?!’, ‘Where Have I Been All My Life?’ and musical ‘London Road’, which was named Best Musical at the Critics Circle Awards after it was staged at the National Theatre.
Last year she returned to Hackney for inspiration with ‘Little Revolution’ (below) which focused on the effects of the 2011 riots. Alecky took her camera and microphone to document what was happening in and around Clarence Road, when the civil unrest began.
The police had kettled rioters into the road, which runs through Pembury Estate. There was only one shop on the street being looted, and she began to take pictures.
“I accidentally caught two looters on camera as they came out of the shop, laden down with crates of beer. They confronted me, with their hoods up, and demanded to go through the photos on my camera. They were actually quite polite but it was kind of scary...”
That shop was to become the focus of ‘Little Revolution’. When she went back, a couple of days later, she discovered that neighbours had started an action fund to help its owner, a Tamil refugee called Siva, to reopen it.
The play documents the process of a community coming together, but also reveals the cracks within. It looks at the reactions of the mums on the estate, its older generations and the wealthy residents of Clapton Square.
“The shop serves people from both sides of the street,” she explains. “The beautiful square of million-pound town houses on one side and, on the other, the poorer Pembury Estate.”
Alecky continues: “Hackney has served me well! I think there’s something about the mix of people here that is inherently good for drama. The richness of its community, and some of the tensions within that. I’m working on my next piece and some of those characters live in Hackney too.”