Theatre Review: Alexis Gregory’s Riot Act ★★★★★

This summer, Alexis Gregory’s critically acclaimed Riot Act has been on a UK Pride tour with a mix of live and streamed shows, following successful outings of the play at London’s Arcola Theatre and on the West End. In its new reimagined online format, it remains powerful, dynamic, and engaging.

Writer and performer Alexis Gregory interviewed three members of the LGBTQ+ rights movement to form this poignant and entertaining show: Michael-Anthony Nozzi, an eyewitness to the Stonewall riots; Lavinia Co-op, an alternative 70s drag artist; and British AIDS activist Paul Burston. Directed by Stonewall (1995) screenwriter Rikki Beadle-Blair MBE, Riot Act vividly brings their stories to life.

Alexis Gregory in Riot Act, photograph Holly Revell.

It’s a whistle-stop tour of gay history, but one that hits many of the key markers. The focus is on stories about people, and Gregory perfectly captures these voices. Although it is a theatricalized (and now, of course, digitized) version of their stories, abridged from extensive interviews, there’s a “realness” within the performance. Some of the highlights are in the small details, such as when Michael-Anthony tries to get his sister to come and talk to ‘the playwright from England,’ but she’s too busy eating fries. The added commentary on how good ‘Facebook messenger’ is for the call (this was before we all converted to Zoom) now feels like a nice meta element in this digital incarnation.

Alexis Gregory in Riot Act, photograph Holly Revell.

The shift to digital theatre that we’ve seen over the last two years, continues to be an occasionally fraught, and frequently hit-and-miss affair. But this production is a clear hit in terms of production and considering how the work comes across. Firstly, it’s only 75 minutes long, and a concise running time is essential for streaming theatre. With all the distractions at home, committing to a Shakespearian epic can be a challenge. Secondly, it’s a one-person show, making the screen delivery much smoother, clearer, and possibly an even better experience than in the theatre.

The digital format allows for a real intimacy as we hear the stories up close and personal, and you can clearly see how well Gregory has honed his channeling of each figure. In adapting this for the stage, Beadle-Blair has considered how best to communicate the different beats. You feel as though the camera is working alongside Gregory, almost inside each character’s mind, as it shifts to give different perspectives and there are close-ups at critical moments. The camerawork is excellent, as we start in the dressing room with Gregory and make our way to the stage with him; we see the performance as if inside his mind before returning to the start as he steps out on stage. It’s a nice acknowledgment of the performative and the meta; we are watching a play, which is a performance of people’s lives, which is now committed to film. It’s a complex idea, that’s conveyed simply and elegantly in that framing. 

Alexis Gregory in Riot Act, photograph Holly Revell.

What is most important, of course, are the stories themselves and Gregory moves between the three, weaving them together to form a narrative that spans decades, but also feels intimate and human. Rather than impersonating the figures, he instead gives them all his identity. It’s a deft, nuanced performance with which he holds our attention effortlessly throughout. Up close on film, we can revel in all the details of his facial expressions and gestures that bring each of the three figures to life. 

Alexis Gregory in Riot Act, photograph Holly Revell.

Riot Act offers thoroughly human insights into big moments in queer history; Stonewall, Liberation, and AIDS. We get a glimpse into the day-to-day life of 70s London and go behind-the-scenes at Stonewall. Details like the boy who was sent to get hot water from the nearby Greenwich Village coffee shop to wash off the blood. Our lives are lived in the details, which Gregory has an ear for and it really elevates his storytelling. It might be the one-liners and key historical moments that reel us in, but it’s the small details that pack an emotional punch, reminding us of the humans behind the queer historical timelines.

This is a play about knowing your history to inform the present. Gregory quotes Peter Tatchell towards the end, “The price of freedom is constant vigilance”, as he turns the narrative towards the audience, powerfully observing the stark difference between the 90s and now. Gregory contextualizes the activists’ memories to highlight that a generation of gay men has become “complacent”. This parallels neatly with his earlier point on the lost generation, and the disconnect between older and younger gay men. Perhaps by sharing these stories, we take a step towards closing that gap, and ending some of that complacency. Knowing your history is important; bringing it to life so that future generations can appreciate it is vital. Gregory manages both with an entertaining and engaging performance.  

By Emily Garside

Riot Act streams on Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre website and on Manchester’s The Lowry website from Monday, August 22nd until Sunday, 28th August 2022. For more on Riot Act and Alexis Gregory head to his official website.

Alexis Gregory in Riot Act.

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