Rob Johnston’s script is a timely reminder that the Riot Act isn’t just something your mother threatened you with (and then sent you to bed early). Before it passed into metaphor, it was a piece of legislation that enabled the authorities to treat protesters as felons - subject to dispersal by any means necessary, including mortal force. It is also sobering to be reminded, in this bicentenary of Peterloo, that the use of extreme violence against working class demonstrators did not end then.
The Riot Act focuses on an incident in 1842, when Lancashire cotton-workers again marched in protest at appalling pay and conditions. Reaching Preston’s Lune Street, the protesters were confronted by the authorities and read the Riot Act; before long, seven men had been shot, and four killed.
The play is a two-hander, constructed with a pleasing symmetry. First it introduces us to two workers preparing for the demonstration, then two members of the mill-owning political classes - before juxtaposing the reading of the Riot Act against snippets from radical speeches, and the aftermath of the massacre.
What’s particularly smart here is the way that different views are given equal weight. When we first meet the workers, George (Jake Talbot) is a bit of a tearaway: not the brightest, but fired up by injustice and armed with a cosh. James (Christopher Ward) is older and wiser, aiming to avoid trouble, warning George that it’s not a game. Johnston’s script is particularly strong here, with plenty of humour, and we feel the excitement about the march to come and the possibility of change.
The two politicians are cleverly counterpointed: the brusque Samuel Horrocks (Ward), mill owner and Mayor of Preston, is confronted by Denholm (Talbot), his more progressive friend. At times the dialogue is a little didactic - hard to avoid in a historico-political piece like this - but I like how Horrocks’ opinions are presented very reasonably, in ways you will hear today. Just as workers then were losing out to machinery, so the modern world sees the same threat from automation, and many will see much validity in what Horrocks says - though that’s eventually undercut by the actions he is prepared to take to protect his position.
The slow deliberate scene changes, where the actors switch clothes for their new characters, could seem a little old-school - though after the intensity of the scenes, they work well and allow for snippets of songs from the English protest folk tradition. The performances are strong: I particularly liked Ward as the kindly, intelligent worker and as the powerful Horrocks. He is an imposing figure, but there was so much going on in his eyes, and he brought an emotional core to the play which reminded that these historical events affected real people.
Rob Johnston has bought several intelligent and thoughtful pieces to past Buxton Fringes, and this one does not disappoint. It is a fine play, and a worthy contribution to this year of Peterloo commemorations.