Reviewed – 16th June 2019
“Gregory remains an incredibly watchable and powerful figure on stage”
Just under a year since its mesmerising turn at the King’s Head Theatre, ‘Riot Act’ is on the move. The Arcola Theatre plays host this time for three performances that commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, and the show will soon embark on a UK tour. I reviewed the show last year, and found it powerful, deeply moving and politically rousing. None of that has changed, and the show, along with writer and star Alexis Gregory, have only got better.
This is verbatim theatre utilising personal stories in the best way. Created from hours of interviews, we meet three gay men from three different generations: Michael, one of the last remaining witnesses to the Stonewall Riots; Lavinia, Hackney drag queen of the 70s; and Paul, Act Up activist and successful writer in his own right. These three stories come together to present a powerful collective experience. Struggles with identity and finding community. The freedom of gay liberation post-Stonewall. The unimaginable pain and suffering of the AIDS crisis. These oral histories give us tales beyond the mainstream. They ask us: what does it mean to be gay? What do we know about gay history? Do we take things for granted that in reality aren’t?
Paul’s message about “constant vigilance” seems even more potent in light of recent events. The cancelling of a performance of ‘Rotterdam’ in Southampton after stars Lucy Jane Parkinson and Rebecca Banatvala were pelted with stones. The headline grabbing attack on a London bus of Melania Geymonat and her girlfriend Chris. This show reminds us these aren’t random, but the continuation of a culture of intolerance we all know well. The question is: what can you do to change things?
Gregory remains an incredibly watchable and powerful figure on stage. He morphs effortlessly into the three characters using voice and stance to expertly delineate between them all. His speech rhythms also change – it’s real dedication to character on display here. Rikki Beadle-Blair directs, and the pair play around with lighting to create drama. Beadle-Blair allows Gregory to enjoy the comedic moments – and this audience was loving it. Laughter of surprise and recognition mixes in this vibrant and diverse audience. The show invites conversation. Speak to the person next to you! Ask them questions! Remember your shared history!
In all, ‘Riot Act’ remains one of the best queer shows I’ve seen in London. I’m so glad the rest of the UK will get chance to hear these stories and respond to them. How much are the metropolitan experiences of the men in the show shared by people from across the UK? What parallels will emerge? And what of the future of ‘Riot Act’? Gregory mentioned a ‘women’s riot act’ – so the future looks bright. Beautiful, engaging and moving, I recommend this show to everyone.
Reviewed by Joseph Prestwich
Photography by Dawson James
Arcola Theatre until 30th June then UK tour continues
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue:
King’s Head Theatre
Reviewed – 15th March 2019
“a very watchable piece of theatre that is intimate in exploring its far-reaching topics”
Three months into their relationship, Bradley and Lex are ready to christen it. However, there’s more than just first-time jitters getting in the way. Romance, intimacy and identity cook from the inside out in Tom Wright’s well-written comedy about our baggage in the bedroom. Not to give too much away but the storytelling is full of treats. Even though there aren’t any twists per se, every plot point, from whose bedroom we’re in to whose life’s at threat are threaded subtlety into Bradley and Lex’s back-and-forth.
Lex and Bradley, at times, evoke the same affection you have towards Louis and Prior’s in Kushner’s Angels in America, and I do not say that lightly. Both pairs, are intelligent gay men who know all too well the strains and threats on their community but are in disagreement on how, or if, they should take arms against the issues. And like Angels, Undetectable is unmistakably made for the stage.
Wright leavens the conflicted morals of his play through some very funny dialogue. Whilst shrewd and well observed, this showed his skill at turning phrases and pacing punchlines, more than it did his strength at giving unique voices to his characters. Perhaps it wasn’t his aim, because his choices ultimately work to the play’s credit; helped in no small part by two towering performances from Lewis Brown and Freddie Hogan.
Director Rikki Beadle-Blair MBE and the players have brought to life a vivid tapestry of labels, masks and brave-faces. The moments of roleplay between the lovers are utterly enthralling to watch exploring the theatre in lovemaking itself, through a play-within-a-play dynamic that all at once amuses and, quite frankly, creeps you out (especially during a teacher-student fantasy). Brown and Hogan take on their parts with nerves of steel, not once missing a beat in a physically gruelling and exposing performance.
In a play like this, a pinhole in any of these elements sinks the ship completely. And whilst there aren’t any holes in Undetectable, there are a few open windows. There’s a distinct lack of stakes between Lex and Bradley. Once the roles are established, the play spins out entirely predictably. A switch in style in the final third was welcomed, and well executed, but didn’t shift from the fact that despite many threats of walk-outs, we knew it would be happily ever after. Perhaps it’s because certain emotional junctures aren’t given space to breathe. At one point Bradley emotively talks about what the spectre of a positive HIV diagnosis can do to the mind, in one of the play’s finest moments, but is undercut by Lex talking about his drug uses. Moments like these were rushed and could have done with more unpacking. A little quiet would have gone a long way.
Despite this, Wright has created a wonderful romantic relationship and Beadle-Blair has crafted a very watchable piece of theatre that is intimate in exploring its far-reaching topics.
Reviewed by Paul Pinney
Photography by Nick Rutter
King’s Head Theatre until 6th April
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: