A RIOTous Evening of Poetry, Politics And Performance

emoji board arts centre

The show RIOT finished Friday night, at the Arts Centre Melbourne before heading to New York and certainly fulfilled its promise. There have been many complimentary reviews written already but here’s my tuppence-worth because with luck the performers will return!

RIOT was part of Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival and a show I may have overlooked if not recommended by daughter Anne who volunteered at the Festival. She is also involved with the Women’s Circus and after seeing RIOT last week generously bought me a ticket,

You’ll love it, Mum!’

Indeed, I did!

Uplifting and Joyous – the Power of Laughter

The evening turned out to be a fantastic tonic after a month that’s been difficult on several fronts. Laughter is great medicine and there are plenty of opportunities for laughter in the hour and forty minutes as you participate in RIOT – and there is side-splitting audience participation!

The Fairfax Theatre compact and intimate and although we sat in the back row as the cast moved on and off stage everyone felt involved. The way the performers used the space, especially considering the physical nature of many of the acts, impressive and at times nail-biting.

I can imagine they breathed a sigh of relief each night there were no mishaps.


riot stage set
The set intriguing as we started to take our seats.


The Arts Centre blurb describes the show as –

A disorderly cocktail of party and politics, and a love-letter of hope to the future, RIOT is a thrilling, uplifting and unforgettable night out.

Dance, drag, circus and comedy rolled into a gut-punch of wild theatre, RIOT infuses the excitement of a variety show with the energy of the dance floor, setting your hearts and minds ablaze…

riot poster arts centre

RIOT doesn’t disappoint on any level.

I left the theatre relaxed and yet energised and grateful for being part of something unforgettable…  Friday night was a great example of how performance theatre can be exhilarating and inspirational as well as pure entertainment.

RIOT sold every ticket available in Dublin Fringe, won Best Production and broke box-office records and no wonder because it combines spoken word poetry with a strong social justice message, goosebump-inducing singing, Riverdance style, tap and cabaret dancing, heart-stopping aerial acrobatics, deep belly-laugh and slapstick comedy – and all at a breathless pace for more than an hour and a half!

There is no interval – the flow never interrupted, the pacing excellent. A strong thought-provoking message seamlessly segued into a routine that lightens the mood.

riot cast singing

Midsumma Festival is an annual celebration of queer, intersex, transgender, bisexual, lesbian and gay culture, held during January and February in Melbourne and the all-star Irish cast of RIOT a perfect example of the essence of Midsumma written by self-proclaimed Queen of Ireland, Panti Bliss aka Rory O’Neill, and Emmet Kirwan, actor, playwright and poet.

Panti a drag queen and gay rights activist from Ballinrobe, County Mayo, Ireland and one of the many Marriage Equality champions who helped the campaign here to achieve success despite the ridiculous and expensive postal vote conservative politicians forced on Australia.

Panti wrote much of the original text of RIOT with Emmet Kirwan and also wrote her 2017 one-woman show High Heels in Low Places, plus Woman In The Making: Panti’s Memoir.

The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude. 

George Orwell.

But RIOT isn’t just for minorities or pushing one political barrow. It is a show about being human, about acceptance and tolerance, about social justice, equity and most of all about love and hope for a better world. We can all be the catalysts for change.

The 80s music and song and dance routines with Panti’s patter reminiscent of the intimacy of the club scene.

The spoken word poems powerful and mesmerising like many slam poetry gigs but throw in Britain’s Got Talent semi-finalists Lords of Strut – aka Cian Kinsella and Cormac Mohally with clowning acrobatics, juggling, dancing and patter, add former Gaelic football player Ronan Brady turned aerialist extraordinaire, and you have a carnival of unforgettable talent.

riot cast final number

As a writer, I paid close attention to the spoken word segments, especially Heartbreak about a teenage girl getting pregnant performed by Kate Brennan.

In a few powerful words we learn the choice or lack thereof in Ireland regarding contraception and abortion, the attitudes of family, society,  church and state, the challenges girls face struggling to raise a child alone and the teenage perspective on parenting and the future.

Written by award-winning playwright Emmet Kirwan, the piece has been adapted and brought to a wider audience with a seven-minute short film, and it is worth watching on Youtube.

Here are selections of an interview with Emmet by RTE Entertainment that give some insight into his decision to write Heartbreak for the stage, turn it into a short film and release it to as wide an audience as possible through social media and why you then must let it go – if people are inspired or motivated to consider other people’s perspectives or lives so be it…

It’s one of those things when you do something, you’re not actually 100 percent about anything until it’s viewed by an audience.

I didn’t have any ballpark thing; I was just hoping that people would see it and that basically, the video would be like a delivery system for the poem. That was the primary goal of it, but when you bring in other people like Dave, they turn it into something that’s not just a poem.

… essentially it’s just about giving something to the debate. What happens a lot of time in debates is it’s a lot of didactic statements bouncing off each other and they don’t actually touch a nerve with anybody because these things are just figures on a page or sound bites.

So if you can make something that’s essentially a statistic into a story it has more impact.

If it has an impact, it has.

And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t – it’s not world-ending. As far as I’m concerned it’s done its job in the sense that it’s just out there.

Whatever happens to it now is up to whoever sees it.

There are a lot of surprises in RIOT and when light and sound disappears abruptly the audience are encouraged to bring their mobile phones to the rescue. It doesn’t take you long to realise it is all part of the performance but it is a cleverly woven segment.

Alma Kelliher, the musical brain behind RIOT, influenced by folk, gospel and close vocal harmony. The secretary of the Irish Society of Stage and Screen Designers, her music has been performed throughout Europe, USA, Asia and Australia.

I sat between my two daughters who recognised and loved the 80s songs. The tunes were catchy but I was too busy being a new mum in the 80s so couldn’t sing along like they did but did recognise the fluorescent and gaudy colour schemes of 80s fashion and loved how the stage adaptations glittered, gleamed, shimmied and shook.

A Carnival of Talent

Cabaret, clubs, theatre, circus – RIOT an amazing carnival of entertaining talent: there is an aerial and ground performer with muscle control which must be the envy of the best dancers and circus acts in the world. 

I know my daughter is itching to be as good as Ronan Brady one day.

His feats are jaw-dropping and inspire collective audience breath holding.

Yet this same athletic performer dances and does spoofs on adverts that demean women and pokes fun at stereotypes gay and straight.

In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald Rory aka Panti explains how the revolutionary show came into being during the centenary of the Easter Rising in Dublin and how Ronan got involved.

Riot came from a conversation one day when we were talking about Riverdance, what it said about Ireland at the time, and we wondered what would our Riverdance look like?

Emmet is very well known here in Ireland for having a social conscience, so he wrote these incredible sorts of poems, and then I wrote some as well and those things are what pull everything else through…

… former Gaelic football player Ronan Brady …  took to aerial work as a means to limber up following injury, and the practice stuck.

When we found him, Ronan was a great aerialist and all that and he’s very handsome – perfect! – but he had never done anything like this, or with people like us.

So he turns up for the very first day, a photoshoot long before we got into the rehearsal room, and the gayest costume designer in the world hands him a pair of Speedos, and Panti is there.

At the time, he handled it very well but we know now he was just like, ‘What the f—?!’

He had no idea what he had let himself in for. He had never even met a gay person. But he’s firmly okay with it all by now.

Loud and Proud Without Hubris

There is Heartache, but also Harmony, Humour… and most of all Happiness.

2018 needs a RIOT and I wish Panti and crew luck as they continue their world tour. Who knows they may even inspire a Trump tweet!


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