Riverdance meets La Soirée meets Marriage Equality rally in this hit alt-cabaret show from Ireland
Melbourne audiences have seen a lot of circus in the last few years, in a lot of iterations. We’ve had sublime, classy circus with Brisbane-based Circa’s Opus and Il Ritorno. We’ve had dirty, sexy adult circus with American company Spiegelworld’s Absinthe and Empire. And of course we have our own homegrown political pop take on the art form with Circus Oz. We’ve become used to the various ways the genre can be interpreted, and we tend to be a hard audience to impress. Now we have Thisispopbaby’s Riot, which folds spoken word, political agitprop and good old Irish buffoonery into its more conventional circus fare.
The lynchpin is ‘Queen of Ireland’ Panti Bliss, the drag alter-ego of Rory O’Neill, and something of an international legend for her tireless campaigning during that country’s marriage equality referendum. She’s tall, blonde and utterly commanding; there’s a sharpened-stiletto savagery to her, but it’s couched in genuine warmth. Her most radical battle cry is a call for kindness as an organising social principle, and the show goes some way in convincing us of its power and need.
But first, as if to prove her bona fides as a drag queen, she gives us an hilarious and rather fiendish lip-sync to snatches of film dialogue, opening and closing with Maggie Smith from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie with a few diversions to, among others, Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest and Ethel Merman in Gypsy. It’s a wry comment on the ghastly camp that underlines most female representation on screen. Panti returns late in the piece to deliver what feels like a Ted Talk in brief, about her desire to be Farrah Fawcett and that rallying call for kindness. But for the most part, she remains in the background, a kind of big-haired fairy godmother ushering in the variety acts.
Some of these acts are nutty – the Lords of Strut do a lot to live up to their name, with acts involving rings and whips and glad wrap – and some are deadly serious. The spoken word sections, performed by Kate Stanley Brennan, are searing and timely, but also full of local Irish references that are hard to decipher given the speed of her delivery. It’s worth noting though, that Ireland is about to embark on an abortion referendum three years after its marriage equality one. How’s that for reform by division?
While there is a political thrust underpinning this show, it’s not until the “guest performer” – local singer/songwriter Mojo Juju – turns up and delivers an excoriating and soulful cry of cultural dispossession that the show seems to really wake up. There’s something about the righteous anger and naked emotion emanating from this extraordinary performer that galvanises the show, which is problematic given she won’t be appearing again.
This perhaps goes to the heart of the problem with Riot. Its individual parts are strong, but they’re also wildly divergent in tone and intention. The Vaseline Dions (what a name!) bring hilarious gusto to their Irish tap routines, Ronan Brady is a sensuous aerial performer, and the vocal quartet that supply the bulk of the music harmonise magnificently. But they all feel like strong acts – admittedly stunningly designed by Niall Sweeney and lit by Mark Galione – that can be slotted into any show, rather than manifestations of the spirit of Panti Bliss. Panti deserves more than that, cultural touchstone as she is, in a world that’s going to need her for a little longer yet.