Home » London Theatre Reviews » Review of Riot Act: ‘One to see, and one to remember’ | King’s Head Theatre

Review of Riot Act: ‘One to see, and one to remember’ | King’s Head Theatre

Riot Act - Photo by Dawson James
Riot Act – Photo by Dawson James

It’s tempting to say that with the relative lack of set and just a few simple costume changes – straightforward enough to be done on-stage – plus a reliance on the spoken word to describe events, and not act them out, that Riot Act would be best broadcast as a radio play. It could, with some minor modifications to meet broadcasting regulations, but there’s something about the gestures and mannerisms of the people voiced by Alexis Gregory that adds an extra dimension to a show that is sparse on staging but oozes with emotion. ‘People’ is the operative word, rather than characters: the script is an edited but nonetheless verbatim narrative constructed from interviews from, as the show’s programme describes them, “three gay men”.

All three are, in very different ways, quite extraordinary people. I wondered where the testimony of Michael-Anthony Nozzi was going, with Judy Garland namedropped at least half a dozen times in as many minutes. But I wasn’t around in 1969 when she passed away, so this production proved educational: Garland’s passing happened a few days before the Stonewall riots in New York City, precipitated by a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, which was the only bar for gay men in NYC at the time.

The long-term effects were (and are) staggering, though Nozzi could not have reasonably foreseen them. The descriptions of what took place are still detailed and vivid despite the passage of time, though this is not a typical commentary of a chain of events. Speaking at an almost relentlessly brisk pace, Nozzi is clearly a passionate man, and age has not mellowed him or his points of view. I suppose such a hard-hitting incident would be as memorable as it was for him: the police, having bludgeoned the clientele of the Stonewall Inn, had arranged for neither ambulances nor taxis to stop for anyone bleeding in the immediate vicinity. So, there was a clean-up operation in more ways than one.

And then there’s the politics. Nozzi possesses the zeal of an evangelical preacher when he talks about the price paid by people who identified as gay, something he feels is underappreciated (if appreciated at all) by the younger generations of the LGBT+ movement. Paul Burston, whose words were also used in this play, engaged in political activism: gay people were, back then, “literally fighting for their lives”. Burston, previously involved with AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), believes the efforts of lesbian activists was and is often overlooked, going as far as to question whether gay activists would have done as much for the lesbian community if they were being attacked and ostracised in the mainstream press and society at large.

Lavinia Co-op made a point not often explored in theatre, which on the whole places, with justification, emphasis on getting out there and expressing oneself, without shame. But it is quite different being on stage dressed up in a certain way and wanting to get home in one piece. Co-op talking about the “need to retreat” into a private space every so often gave much food for thought.

Perhaps inevitably, AIDS was a running theme, because it impacted so many within the gay community. In a world where some people are beginning to question whether the Pride events, which arose out of the Stonewall riots, are still necessary in this day and age, this important play serves as a welcome, if uncomfortable, reminder of what went on before.

With verbatim pieces, the identities of the people whose words are being used as not always known, sometimes because the contributors themselves wish to remain anonymous. Here, the play goes as far as to repeat the contributors’ words when they give express consent for their words and their names to be used (this is all gloriously GDPR compliant!). It may be a bit repetitive, but it underlines how important the issues raised are to the contributors. Real events told by real people, communicated by a capable and convincing actor in Alexis Gregory: theatre rarely gets as impactful as this. One to see, and one to remember.

5 Star Rating

Review by Chris Comaweng

Riot Act, a powerful, brand new verbatim theatre piece, created especially for the King’s Head Theatre’s Queer Season.

Playwright and performer Alexis Gregory interviewed one of the only remaining Stonewall survivors – the 1969 NYC riot that kick-started the gay rights movement; a member of a 1970’s London radical-drag troupe- underground alternative performance icon Lavinia Co-Op; and prominent 90’s London ACT UP AIDS activist Paul Burston. All three men spoke about their lives then and their lives now. Riot Act is shaped entirely, word for word, out of these interviews.

Alexis Gregory in association with Team Angelica presents
Riot Act
Created and performed by Alexis Gregory
Directed by Rikki Beadle-Blair MBE
Tuesday 31 July – Sunday 5 August at 8.45pm
Running Time: 60 mins

King’s Head Theatre
115, Upper Street
London, N1 1QN

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