It’s Pride Month and that means that London is full of building flying rainbow flags and the theatre scene is gayer than ever with a plethora of LGBT+ themed shows hitting the stages of the capital. Some are just OK, some are good and a small number are absolutely awesome. I was lucky enough to get to experience the latter type of show as Alexis Gregory’s Riot Act arrived at the Arcola Theatre,
This one-man show is a verbatim portrayal of conversations Alexis has had with three gay men, whose stories are told in three separate monologues over the sixty-minute run. First, we have Michael-Anthony Nozzi, one of the few remaining people who were present at the Stonewall riots in 1969. Michael paints a graphic picture not just of the Stonewall Inn itself but also the area around Greenwich Village. This completely changed my perception of the events of June 28th. Over the course of the monologue I learnt so much about the event, its background and its link with Judy Garland – a gay icon raised to goddess status by Stonewall. Michael-Anthony doesn’t pull his punches and goes into great detail about the riot and its aftermath. But, Michael Anthony’s story doesn’t end there, and we follow him through the aftermath of Stonewall and the arrival of something even worse than a bunch of homophobic men with a badge, a gun and a nightstick, the arrival of the AIDS epidemic and its effect on the gay male population of New York in the 1980s. A truly emotional story with repercussions that are still felt today.
Next, we were introduced to Lavinia Co-op radical drag queen and part of the famous Bloolips troupe. Lavinia’s story starts when she was 19 and went to the doctor as she thought there was something wrong with her. At the time, she had never seen gay men and didn’t really understand what her feelings were telling her. Feeling isolated, Lavinia, finally realised the truth and had to make the hardest decision anyone has to make and come out to herself. Once acceptance has happened, Lavinia moves to a squat in Notting Hill and realises that drag is the answer for her. Painting a wonderful picture of gay London in the 1970s Lavinia tells us about her group and the way they worked. And then the spectre of AIDS enters again. For Lavinia, as with Michael-Anthony, the deaths start and the fear takes over. However, Lavinia is a survivor and, a quick Google Search this morning shows that she is still active, giving interviews and being fabulous.
Finally, Paul Burston takes to the stage. Paul is a well-known author, journalist and activist with the group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) an international, grassroots political group working to end the AIDS pandemic. The group works to improve the lives of people with AIDS through direct action, legislation, medical research, treatment and advocacy, and changing public policies. Paul’s story is fascinating as he was there at the start of ACT UP and talks of how things were at that time. There was so much misinformation around – including the advice that, as the first reported had cases had come from the USA, then American men were to be avoided – and a government that thought adverts of tombstones were the way ahead. As he saw friends die, Paul became politicised and threw himself into the fledgling UK ACT UP organisation becoming a highly committed activist. Paul talks of the early life of ACT UP and the involvement of many lesbians in getting things moving, something I had not been aware of before.
Three real-life stories covering three decades of LGBT+ history, brought to life by a master storyteller. For the duration of their story, each person inhabits the stage, not as some impression, but as a living breathing person telling their tale. There may be years and miles between them but Michael-Anthony, Lavinia and Paul are all united by the changes in LGBT+ rights and the suffering and devastation brought on by the AIDS crisis. In these days where STDs are on the rise again and young gay men are almost blasé about HIV/AIDS, it is more important than ever that stories like these are heard and understood. I’m in my 50s and was around, though not out, during the 1980s, and I learnt so much from Riot Act. This is a first-rate show, that will make you laugh and cry. Rikki Beadle-Blair shows a real understanding of less is more in his direction and, with minimal movement, lighting, music and costume changes, Alexis totally dominates the stage and every person in the audience is fixated on the three people who inhabit him and whose stories will remain with you long after the curtain falls and the lights come up.
Review by Terry Eastham
Created from playwright and performer Alexis Gregory’s interviews with Michael-Anthony Nozzi, one of the only remaining Stonewall survivors; Lavinia Co-op, a 1970s London radical-drag artist; and Paul Burston, a prominent 1990s AIDS activist, this solo verbatim piece is a breathtaking journey through six decades of queer history.
Arcola Theatre, Alexis Gregory and Team Angelica present Riot Act – a powerful, critically acclaimed verbatim theatre piece – created and performed by Alexis Gregory and directed by Rikki Beadle-Blair MBE.
Sunday 16th, Sunday 23rd, Sunday 30th June at 7.30pm
Running Time: 60 mins
24 Ashwin Street,
London, E8 3DL