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Riot review – Dublin drag star leads disparate mix of poetry and politics

Irish drag star and activist Rory O’Neill as Panti Bliss, the star of Riot
Irish drag star and activist Rory O’Neill as Panti Bliss, the star of Riot. Photograph: Conor Horgan

Imagine an Avalanches song as a stage show – some sampling, some spoken word, some disco and pop beats all jumbled together – and you have an idea what the genre-defying show Riot is about.

Taking the primetime slot in the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent for this year’s Sydney festival, Riot is a mix of dance, drag, circus, spoken-word poetry and contortion, with a bit of blasphemy and a lot of politics thrown in.

Riot is an Irish production with Irish concerns and was a critical hit in its home country, where it was praised as “brilliant” by the Irish Times and won best production at 2016’s Dublin Fringe. The politics of the show translate well to an Australian audience, from marriage equality to the Catholic church, to corporate greed, misogyny and the numbing effect of social media. But the disparate parts don’t always add up to a cohesive whole.

Although the production is a group effort, Irish drag star and activist Rory O’Neill as Panti Bliss holds it together: think Farrah Fawcett with cutting one-liners. She rages against heteronormativity, marriage and the crushing of non-conformists, all through a rictus grin. Muriel’s Wedding is repeatedly referenced as a force for good.

Irish actor and writer Emmet Kirwan’s spoken word, meanwhile, is a powerful counterpoint – particularly his piece about teen pregnancy, Heartbreak, which went viral in January last year. There is nothing funny or arch about Kirwan’s rapid-fire work, which is deadly serious and shot through with anger. The change in tone between him and Panti Bliss feels like a sudden shift in the weather.

But it’s not all worthy topics and social change. Michael Flatley-esque duo Cian Kinsella and Cormac Mohally, who perform under the name Lords of Strut, were first discovered on Britain’s Got Talent, where they became crowd favourites for their hilarious choreography to 80s tunes. They also dress the part in lairy tracksuits and baseball caps, with a mullet for Mohally.

Lords of Strut at Riot
Lords of Strut were crowd favourites on Britain’s Got Talent. Photograph: Fiona Morgan

In Riot, their acrobatics to the infectious beat of A-Ha’s Take On Me warm the crowd up. More perplexing is the skit in which the audience is handed pool noodles with which to whack a pretend Jesus, played by Kinsella in a nappy. Later, two members of the troupe Irish-dance across the stage with giant balloons on their heads. And at another point, a male member of the troupe performs a striptease to Salt N’ Pepa’s Whatta Man, before swinging on aerial ribbons while throwing potato chips into the audience.

Through lines can be found in the broad themes of the show – inequality, social justice and the simple power of being kind – but on Sunday night, Riot is dragged down by a technical hiccup: patrons aren’t admitted until 45 minutes after the advertised starting time, a big setback for the tightly scheduled Spiegeltent. But it regained momentum, ending with a rousing version of Peter Cetera’s Glory of Love.

There are about five different shows packed into one with Riot – but while the individual performances are strong, the results are ultimately, distractingly, jarring.

Riot runs at Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent, Hyde Park, until 28 January, as part of Sydney festival; and at Arts Centre Melbourne from 31 January until 9 February, as part of Midsumma

• This article was amended on 10 January 2018 to remove the reference to the sound and lights being cut unintentionally. The Guardian understands this was an intentional choice.

This article titled "Riot review – Dublin drag star leads disparate mix of poetry and politics" was written by Brigid Delaney, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 9 January 2018 09.49pm

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