“packs an emotional and political punch that will move and inspire”
A powerful, emotional and rousing piece of verbatim theatre, ‘Riot Act’ is by far one of the most moving pieces of new queer writing currently being performed in London. Alexis Gregory, the creator and performer of the piece, has assembled three epic monologues from interviews with three gay men: Michael in New York, who tells of his experience at the Stonewall Riots; Lavinia from Hackney, who recounts their life on the London drag scene; and Paul, a gay rights activist reminiscing about his time on the front line.
All older gay men, these people (characters?) tell stories of amazing scope, encompassing gay liberation, the hedonistic seventies, devasting eighties and nineties, and the freedoms (or, indeed, lack thereof) that were fought for over the past five decades. Legacy and history are important to these men, and all seem impressed in the end that Gregory is taking the time to interview them and hear their stories. People simply “don’t ask”. Is there a link between strong gay male communities and an engagement with the past? ‘Riot Act’ argues there is, and that through understanding the struggles previous generations battled through we can better appreciate what we have now. Peter Tatchell is quoted in Paul’s interview, and the message sticks: vigilance, in a world where gay men still face abuse on a day to day basis (yes, even at 67!), is key. The piece is less a call to arms and more a kind reminder that communities, especially LGBTQ+ ones, are often stronger than individuals alone, and provide a necessary support network we cannot see get lost.
Gregory himself gives a startlingly punchy, grounded and virtuosic performance. Easily sashaying from character to character, a simple change of costume, voice and physicality denotes personality, and in his hands, the monologues become at once powerful, forceful and yet intimately personal. Rikki Beadle-Blair directs Gregory well, drawing out his physicality and strength, as well as the comedy within the monologues.
The impact of these stories was made all the more potent by the interviewees actually being in the audience on opening night. Bringing home the struggles and joys of older gay men’s lives, ‘Riot Act’ packs an emotional and political punch that will move and inspire well beyond it’s closing lines.
In a “lovely basement” (correction: “lovely dungeon”) B has paid A a large of amount of money to recreate one of the famous gay serial killer’s murders, with B as the victim. “I’m going to hurt you,” promises A. “Promise me you’ll make me forget who I am,” retorts B. B has a pain threshold of eight and three quarters and has taken all his drugs on the bus. He is not only a fan of the gay serial killer but “an admirer” and he knows every case in perfect detail. But A has insider knowledge. However expectations collide and the two have to decide how far they are willing to go. As the situation simmers, the session makes a U-turn.
This play is a fascinating and well-crafted insight into a taboo part of the fetish scene, questioning the boundaries between pleasure and pain and revealing the extremities of sado-masochism. It is a nuanced and non-stereotyped approach, which deals in real people and real desires without judgement, whilst still delivering a dramatic and intelligent narrative structure. Alexis Gregory’s writing is darkly funny, and successfully addresses his focuses for this show, fetishisation and ‘gay’ serial killers – “we never say ‘heterosexual serial killers’ do we?” asks Gregory in the programme.
Both Alexis Gregory (also the playwright) as B and Jonny Woo as A, deliver fantastic performances. Gregory has a manic energy onstage, somehow infectiously likeable. There is a wonderful juxtaposition between his excitement and the context in which we find him. Woo is cold, professional and apparently impenetrable. They play off each other fantastically, antitheses of each other in many ways, the balance of power tipping between them in a delicate build of tension.
There is a stylised quality to Gregory’s writing style, which works fantastically in the first half of the play but makes the empathy necessary in the second part harder to muster as an audience member. The play lags at this point as a result of this and the change lacks some believability, and the underlying darkness could have been pushed further at this middle point.
The set (Robbie Butler) is wrapped in white plastic and littered with implements of pain and/or pleasure, hammers and full syringes, and is enhanced by Mike Robertson’s lighting design, which reinvents the space over and over as time passes. With loud sounds punctuating sudden blackouts, the violence is well done – not shied away from, but also not gratuitous.
This is a well crafted, well written piece about a topic that is frequently categorised as taboo, delivered by two excellent performers.