“There Was Something About Gays… And Judy Garland” – Riot Act at Birmingham Rep 12.05.22

Writer Ed King / Photographer Holly Revell

Riot Act, Alexis Gregory’s solo show, landed at Birmingham Rep as part of a ten date Pride Tour across the UK – produced by Emmerson and Ward, funded by Arts Council England, and road tested at the London LGBT literary salon, Polari.

A verbatim script of three separate interviews with men who lived, loved, and fought through pivotal moments in LGBTQ+ history, Riot Act is an hour of directly personal history – recanted and dramatised through a solo performance.

One man, three voices, and a visceral account of gay life and liberation – from the Stonewall Riots to the horrors and aftershock of HIV and AIDS – Riot Act begins with Michael, ‘a sixty five year old gay male’ who’s first night in New York was spent gathering hot water for battered queens during the iconic “perfect storm” on Christopher Street in 1969.

Arguably the turning point for gay liberation, or even the starting point, it would have been tempting to spend the next 60 minutes recounting tales of the iconic battle between New York’s finest and the Stonewall queens – when the Village fought back against years of police brutality, bullying, and a wider society with a woeful blind eye.

Michael’s memories are rich and Gregory commands centre stage with borrowed anecdotes – such as the NYPD choosing to turn up and turf out the Stonewall clientele during a Judy Garland screening of A Star Is Born, a week after the gay icon had died. Big mistake.

But the narrative and history lesson hands the baton to Lavinia, or Vin, who is “much more East End” – and introduces us to the “radical drag” scene of London’s pre-property boom era, when Notting Hill “was a dump.”

Switching from one clearly defined character to another, Gregory’s storytelling is wonderful, opening up the personal pages of another’s history and the shared memories of subjects – with a prominent thread tying all three together.

As the 60’s and 70’s lit a fuse of liberation, and that fuse started a glorious fire, the 80’s would respond with a tidal wave of loss and fear – as HIV and AIDS decimated a community finally starting to be recognised.

Lavinia explains: “HIV made us visible.”

But Riot Act is not a theatre show about HIV or AIDS, specifically, as Gregory would explain after the show the stories of the men interviewed dictated the narrative.

But as a man who grew up as a child under that particularly dark cloud, it is curiously pertinent to remind ourselves the word pandemic once meant something else. Something truly cruel and frightening, as Vin remembers going to “32 funerals in one month” and Paul recognises the “poor taste” of older gay men complaining about their advancing years as “some people didn’t even reach thirty.”

Short, bittersweet, and fantastically delivered, Riot Act is what many theatre critics would refer as a ‘must see’. But it really is – funny, entertaining, informative, original, and a directly personal oral history we should never forget.

So, live a little and learn something. And spend 60 minutes delving through the diaries of three gay men you’re unlikely to ever meet but who you can still get to know.

Coming to a theatre near you, although not back in Birmingham – Riot Act will also be streamed online in August, available through Alexis Gregory’s website.

Riot Act – offical trailer

For more on Alexis Gregory and Riot Act visit www.alexisgregory.co.uk/riot-act

For more form the Birmingham Rep visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk