February is LGBT+ History Month – so to celebrate that, Alexis Gregory’s one-man show Riot Act heads to Stream.Theatre as a digital production. Filmed at the Hackney Empire and performed by the writer, the show has previously run in-person at the Duchess Theatre, the King’s Head & the Arcola, as well as multiple tours.
This is a piece of verbatim theatre, telling three stories of queer activism from the mid-20th century to the present day; Gregory conducted interviews with Michael-Anthony Nozzi (a survivor of the Stonewall riots), Lavinia Co-op (a 70s drag artist), and Paul Burston (a 90s AIDS activist), covering everything from gay liberation to the HIV/AIDS crisis. Rikki Beadle-Blair’s direction sees Gregory running his lines in his dressing room, performing on-stage, watching himself perform, and flyering on the street outside the theatre.
Michael’s section focuses initially on queer icon Judy Garland and her indirect, posthumous involvement in the Stonewall riots; she died a week before, and the regulars had decided to screen A Star is Born in tribute – this ended up attracting more patrons than usual, and of course coincided with a police raid (kicking off the riots). It’s interesting to hear his perspective on the after-effects of Stonewall, seeing change steadily be more forthcoming. Lavinia is a Hackney local, and speaks about how initially they weren’t sure what was ‘wrong’ with them – they didn’t know any other gay people, and it apparently “felt like an illness”. It’s fascinating to hear how they launched themselves into the scene, particularly as gay liberation was experiencing something of a honeymoon period during the 70s (brought to a dark end as HIV started to spread).
Paul’s story pretty much picks up where this left off, recounting how invincible he felt in his youth – and that he didn’t take the epidemic very seriously to begin with. But friends getting diagnosed, suffering through the rudimental treatments (if they weren’t scared off by rumours of them being dangerous), and eventually dying changed his approach. Spending most of his time losing friends and getting arrested for his activism, hearing about the cumulative grief & survivor’s guilt is really affecting.
Gregory’s characterisation is excellent, creating three distinct individuals with their own voices and their own energies (and their own looks). Whether or not they sound like the interviewees I wouldn’t know, but that’s unimportant anyway as it’s the performance that matters; you feel like you’re hearing these people’s tales first-hand, such is Gregory’s storytelling skill. I do think it’s a show that would have a more powerful impact if you were watching it in-person, as the atmosphere doesn’t quite translate across a screen, but nonetheless it’s an important show that is deservedly being shared with a wide audience. I’d recommend giving it a watch.
My verdict? An important piece of verbatim theatre that is fascinating, entertaining & moving.
Riot Act is streaming on Stream.Theatre until 28 February 2022, as part of LGBT+ History Month.