Alexis Gregory’s one-man show is a powerful, passionate piece, anchored by a compelling performance. It uses verbatim stories from three men who have lived through pivotal moments in recent queer history, from the Stonewall riots to AIDS activism.
Sensitively directed by Rikki Beadle-Blair, Gregory utterly inhabits his characters, from the young country boy who ends up in late-1960s New York to an East End drag queen and a London activist. Deftly slipping between roles with nothing more than a change of shirt, Gregory tells their stories unadorned and uncluttered by props or effects. The production is elegantly stark in its simplicity.
It’s a wonderfully evocative piece, packed with tiny, pleasing details. The gritty description of the Stonewall Inn in particular simply sings, full of fascinating insights (that the oft-romanticised bar itself was a bit of a dump, or that a neighbouring country and western gay bar was left unmolested, because women also went there and the police didn’t realise that women could be – that there was such a thing as – lesbians). The men themselves are presented with humour and dignity, but in all their rounded, complicated humanity, and there are plenty of laughs, even at the darkest moments.
Because any modern LGBTQ+ history has dark moments in abundance, and the production doesn’t shy away from the fact. These are three lives bifurcated by one disease and its devastating impact, turning everything in their world to Before or After. The show is at its most moving when it recounts the cost not just to those individual men but to the community at large. It asks what happens to a part of society when a whole generation is all but wiped out, taking that collective knowledge and history with them. It was, one speaker acknowledges, a loss that has left a seemingly unbreachable chasm between survivors and those who came of age into a world where HIV was a manageable disease, not a shadowy, terrifying and little-understood grim reaper that has those who were spared still dealing with the grief over so many buried friends decades later.
Obviously, as an hour-long, one-man show giving voice to three real life individuals, the production is necessarily narrow in its remit. It’s almost entirely silent on race, and though it touches on the fact that gay rights and ‘women’s lib’ sometimes had clashing ideologies, women are noticeably absent (though one of the men does address the fact that the support and activism of lesbians has been erased from most AIDS narratives).
But what it does, it does exceptionally well. And though ultimately optimistic – after all, these men have survived to see a time when they have rights that previously seemed unimaginable – it is also angry, a furious call to arms. A reminder that these freedoms were fought for, not freely given, and that they remain precarious. That as Trumpian America has shown, what seemed like irrevocable progress can be too easily overturned on a politician’s whim. It stresses the importance of knowing your history – a history of police persecution, of social and political hostility and neglect – not just as a reminder of the past and what you owe to those who went before you, but as a warning against complacency in the now.
Riot Act was on at Live Theatre on 20th February. It tours to Doncaster and Bracknell until 27th February. More info here.