Theatre Review: Riot Act

To condense 50 years of gay liberation into a single hour of theatre is, of course, impossible, writes Cary Gee.

So in his verbatim look at the evolution of gay rights since the Stonewall uprising, writer and actor Alexis Gregory settles on three individual accounts, each offering a facsimile of life for gay people in the years since the clientele of the Stonewall Inn, among them drag queens, hustlers and old men, fought back against systemic police brutality and harassment.

 On a bare stage, under a single spotlight, we hear the first hand testimony of Stonewall survivor Michael Anthony Nozzi who is now a professional writer and artist, and was then a 17-year-old drama student, who found himself in the vortex on his first day in NYC. As Nozzi, Gregory recalls the reek, the dirt, the old men and the drag queens dressed in their dead mother’s clothes that confronted him. “That was my introduction to what it was like to be a gay person in the USA in 1969.”

 Through Nozzi’s witness, Gregory masterfully evokes the events of one fateful evening that changed all our lives in ways that the participants could never have foreseen.

 “It was a very scary time.”  Nonetheless Nozzi “felt safer on the nights of the riots, on the pavement in front of Stonewall, than I did in my own hometown.” It was ever thus.

Gregory shuffles into a corner of the stage, before reappearing in a fetching blouse, lippy and high heels to tell the story of radical drag performer Lavinia Co-op. It’s 1970 and Lavinia has been to see her doctor. “I’d never heard of any other gay people…it felt like an illness.”

With the subtlest economy Gregory becomes Lavinia and tells her story to the strains of Bronkski beat’s Smalltown Boy. It’s not just hilarious, but, with hindsight, deeply moving. Lavinia represents the last, in fact only, generation of gay men able to fight without compromise. Recalling an early meeting of the Gay Liberation Front Lavinia deadpans, “I remember an American guy shouting out, ‘I won’t be happy till there’s f**king in the street’ `so yes quite diverse views.

 By the time we get to AIDS activist Paul Burston, the world looks radically different, and prejudice has hardened. He faces a different kind of fight. The legend on his black tee reads Action = Life. (“We thought that Silence = Death was too negative”. ‘For a long time in London the idea of safer sex was “Don’t sleep with Americans.” He remembers the names of dead friends, “There were about twelve people in the space of two years that died” – I’m sure many in the audience were silently remembering their own losses – and the fact the police would don gloves to arrest AIDS protestors. “My mother called to tell me she’d seen me on television. Shouting angrily through some railing. In handcuffs.” Gregory reminds us of the “brave feminists” who campaigned alongside gay men and asks, “Would gay men have done the same thing in reverse? I’m not sure we would have,” he frets.Burston concludes by comparing a wedding photograph of him and his husband, with a photograph of an ACT UP demo, both taken on Westminster Bridg

“I can’t believe it’s the same world. It’s a different world,” he says.

Yes, it is, and that’s entirely down to the unimaginable bravery of people like Michael, Lavinia and Paul himself, brought so brilliantly to life by Gregory, under the unobtrusive direction of Ricky Beadle-Blair.

 Soul-stirring, poignant and at times quite thrilling, Riot Act fades out to Bowie’s Heroes. And they are, one and all.


Riot Act tours the UK throughout the summer, and will be performed at the King’s Head Theatre in London as part of Queer Season, from 31 July 31 – 05 August


This summer, the King’s Head Theatre in London’s Islington will be presenting Queer Season, a celebration of the most interesting and innovative LGBTQI+ theatre being created in modern Britain, with transfers to and from some of the UK’s largest arts festivals alongside world premieres.

The European premiere of For Reasons That Remain Unclear… by Mart Crowley the author of the groundbreaking gay comedy-drama, The Boys in the Band, is to headline the season. Directed by Jessica Lazar (East, Life According to Saki), the play is a thrilling two-hander that examines complex questions of power and fidelity.

Other highlights include Tennessee Williams’ And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens, a fascinating and touching play about the life of a New Orleans drag queen, never performed in Williams’ lifetime because of its openly gay characters; Riot Act, Alexis Gregory’s verbatim exploration of the lives of three prominent Queer activists, directed by Rikki Beadle-Blair; a queer murder mystery, The Cluedo Club Killings, which transfers after an acclaimed sell-out run at the Arcola Theatre and the Minerva Collective’s Sacrament, which explores the challenges of a coming out as a lesbian in Catholic Ireland.


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