Richard Watts

Like Guinness, this Irish cabaret/variety show's flavour lingers long after the house lights have come up.

Lords of Strut; photo by Fiona Morgan.

There’s a certain predictability to Spiegeltent-style variety shows today, with few productions doing much to alter the successful template established by La Clique in 2004 save for mixing up the line-up of their featured artists.

Irish production company THISISPOPBABY haven’t radically changed the formula; nonetheless there’s a refreshing focus to RIOT – currently playing a limited season at Arts Centre Melbourne following a successful run at Sydney Festival – that is often lacking in other shows in this vein.


Developed as part of Ireland’s Easter Rising centenary celebrations, RIOT premiered in the Merrion Square Spiegeltent at Dublin Fringe in 2016. While not a literal homage to the events of 1916, there’s something of the same rebellious, idiosyncratic spirit about the production, and its mix of drag, circus, dance and spoken word moves as well as entertains. Coupled with the production’s evocation of community, hope and optimism, the result is hard to resist.  

Mixing up everything from Riverdance and children’s television references to abortion legislation and the ubiquitous Irish crisps brand, Tayto (or chips, as we’d call them here), this is a production that’s Irish to its core – but focused as much on what Ireland could be as how it looked in the past. That said, the soundtrack does feature a hefty dose of musical nostalgia, including the likes of Salt 'N' Pepa, Enya and Eurythmics. 

At times fierce and compelling – Kate Brennan spitting out the spoken word routines of Emmet Kirwan gives fresh power to his compelling phrasesRIOT is also riotously funny, thanks to the gleeful foolishness of Lords of Strut, whose pool noodle Jesus sequence is the hilarious and  blasphemous highlight of the show.

Dance sequences from The Vaseline Dions; the impressive and occasionally cheeky skills of footballer-turned-aerialist Ronan Brady; live vocals from the Chorus of Sirens, and a compelling vocal spot by soloist Megan Riordan which – deliberately interrupted – generates an instantaneous moment of community engagement, are further highlights.

Guest spots from a different local performer each night also delight. In this instance the legendary Maude Davey performed The Angels’ ‘Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again,’ with her showgirl appearance versus rock star swagger creating delightful friction and dissonance.

RIOT’s mistress of ceremonies is drag queen Panti Bliss, who became the face of Ireland’s marriage equality campaign following a stirring speech on the stage of the Abbey Theatre in 2014. Her routines range from witty lip-synching to passionate oratory; my only complaint with her performance is that there’s not enough of her throughout the show.

Though at times a trifle earnest RIOT is a delicious drop; like Guinness, its flavour lingers long after the houselights have come up.

4 stars out of 5

Created & Directed by Jennifer Jennings & Phillip McMahon
Composed by Alma Kelliher
With original text by Emmet Kirwan & Panti
Additional text by Michael Harding
Designed by Niall Sweeney
Company Manager: Deirdre Molloy
Production Manager: Niall Barrett
Stage Manager: Marella Boschi
Sound Engineer: Ber Quinn
Costume design by James David Seaver
Lighting design by Mark Galione
Counterweighter/Stage Hand: Jérémy Ghislain
Movement Direction by Suzanne Cleary & Peter Harding
Cast: Adam Matthews, Alma Kelliher, Cian Kinsella, Cormac Mohally, Dierdre Griffin, Kate Brennan, Megan Riordan, Nicola Kavanagh, Panti Bliss, Philip Connaughton and Ronan Brady
Originally co-produced by Dublin Fringe Festival and supported by the Arts Council of Ireland

Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne
31 January – 9 February 2018


What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's Performing Arts Editor and Team Leader, Editorial; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R.

The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the Committee of Management for La Mama Theatre, on the board of literary journal Going Down Swinging, and on the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel. He is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts