Alecky Blythe never intended to become a writer. “I only ever wanted to be an actor since I was very little,” she says. But having completed a degree in theatre studies at Warwick University and a year of postgraduate drama training at Mountview, she had no agent and seemingly not much hope of getting one.
“I spent seven years on the fringe not really working, or working in things that I wasn’t particularly proud of,” Blythe recalls. Frustrated by this lack of progress, she began to think about taking things into her own hands, creating the sorts of parts for herself that she wasn’t being offered elsewhere.
Manning the reception at the Actors Centre, Blythe had “done pretty much every course in the book”, when she struck upon a Drama Without Paper course in 2002. Run by the actor and director Mark Wing-Davey, the course demonstrated how material gathered from real-life conversations could be brought to life on stage by actors wearing headphones.
She’d never heard the word ‘verbatim’ before starting the course, but discovered an aptitude for the technique and was soon hooked, spending days out in the cold to record people’s responses to a siege taking place just down the road from where she lived in east London.
Twelve years, a string of hit plays and a clutch of awards later, Blythe is about to witness the release of her first feature film, an adaptation of London Road, the musical she and composer Adam Cork first presented at the National Theatre in 2011. It is a remarkable journey for someone whose “whole plan was to just try and get an acting agent”.
What is the secret to her success? “I think I might have a nose for a story,” she suggests. “There were other companies which were set up which did great work in capturing real stories in quirky, anecdotal life, but it was just anecdotal and I think for longevity, you can probably only go and see so many of those shows.”
The difference with Recorded Delivery, the company she founded in 2003 when her first play, Come Out Eli, transferred to the Arcola Theatre following a showcase at Tristan Bates, was that the verbatim technique was a means to an end.
“People were coming because they were like, ‘Oh, it’s about the siege. And they do this thing with the earphones’. The headline wasn’t the earphones.”
Come Out Eli was followed by plays about migrant labour (Strawberry Fields, 2005), the Wimbledon Championships (All the Right People Come Here, 2005), immigration (I Only Came Here for Six Months, 2005), dating in old age (Cruising, 2006), prostitution (The Girlfriend Experience, 2008 and 2009) and displacement (Do We Look Like Refugees?!, 2010).
Then, in 2011, came Blythe’s breakthrough production, a musical about a community’s response to the murders of five local prostitutes and the subsequent trial of their killer. Having garnered five-star reviews across the board and won best musical at the 2011 Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards, London Road returned to the National Theatre in 2012, making the jump from the Cottesloe to the Olivier. It was at this point that director Rufus Norris hatched the idea for the film adaptation, says Blythe. “Once he saw it working on a bigger stage, it was almost like the cinema screen was then the bigger stage.”
Adapting it for the screen, looking at material she was so close to with new eyes, was a challenge, Blythe says, but an enjoyable one. “The big note that I was getting was: we need to move it away from the show; we’re not making a film of the show and we’re not making a documentary or a mockumentary; it’s a feature film.”
Ultimately, the movie is remarkably faithful to the stage show. Events have been brought into chronological order, some characters have been lost, and others created, but, Blythe says: “I didn’t need to change it nearly as much as they thought.
“The moments when you’ve got the actors sitting in their homes, talking directly to camera, I don’t think people thought that was going to work. So in earlier drafts I cut all those bits out. I think they were worried that would make it look like a documentary, but I felt that actually we were losing some of the warmth and the humour and the personality.”
So Blythe wrote another script that included some of those scenes, and they were scheduled for shooting at the end of each day, if there was time to do them. “And all the ones we shot are in, because they worked,” says Blythe, just a teensy bit triumphant at having been proved right.
Being a writer on set took some getting used to. In rehearsals for the stage production of London Road, Blythe had almost unimpeded access to Norris, but “on a film set there’s like 100 people that all want his time, so you have to become more combative and sort of more American really – after three weeks I was much better at getting in there”.
If working on the film version of London Road opened Blythe’s eyes to the intense pressures and rewards of movie making, it was the stage show that changed her thinking about the verbatim technique she’s made famous. London Road was the first Recorded Delivery show in which the actors went without headphones. “My fear was that you lose some kind of control over the delivery; there’s a thing that happens in the performances and it keeps it authentic,” she says. But Norris insisted: instead of repeating lines as they heard them, the actors would learn a script in the normal way.
“That was a big step for me and it was great to do it. It sort of freed me up, because then when I went on to do Little Revolution [at the Almeida, in summer 2014] I went back to the earphones, and I found them a bit of a bind,” she says.
It was working with singers that finally persuaded her. “They’ve all got fantastically musical ears, so I think they applied the same precision that they were using for the songs with the text,” she says. “They weren’t just learning the line, they were learning the tune of the line. I now feel that if I got the right actors that had the musical aptitude, I think, possibly, no more earphones.”
Blythe is up for experimenting with the form in other ways too. Working with the playwright Michael Wynn in 2013 on Friday Night Sex, a short piece for the Royal Court’s Open Court festival that combined verbatim and invention, got her thinking about bringing some fiction into her writing.
“I’d like to think that one day I might start to write within the verbatim,” she says. “I’ve got the tapes – they’re like my crutch – and I think probably the more I learn about writing, the structure and whatever, that could be a development.”
As well as a long list of possible topics to write about one day, Blythe keeps her eyes and ears open to major events that might make good drama. She is working on a new show for the National, but won’t say anything about it other than, “it’s really early days”.
One thing is for sure: she won’t be repeating herself. “Verbatim should be a broad church,” she says. “I’m just interested in seeing how you can use it. Otherwise you’d be churning out the same stuff. It’s good to be scared.”