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B-Girl review (Playhouse, Sydney Opera House)

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B-Girl is a theatrical and musical experience which crosses boundaries — it runs on a unique and seemingly impossible style of introspective stadium/glam-rock which is, at first, a surprisingly gentle meditation on the kind of duality of personality and ego that exists within all of us.

Written by iOTA and director Craig Ilot (who teamed up on the acclaimed Smoke and Mirrors and the Australian production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch), it’s clearly inspired by iOTA’s own experiences with anxiety, which he spoke about at length to The Australian last month. The elusive music and theatre star feels entirely in control on stage, but routine things like catching a train can throw him into an uncontrollable spiral of anxiety.

In B-Girl, that internal tension is represented through B-Girl (Blazey Best), a quiet, abused housewife who in daydreams conjures up Clifford North (iOTA), the confident rock god who is everything she is not. Clifford struts around the stage in his blue lycra, feathers, sequins and platforms, performing iOTA’s original songs at rock concert volume with a four-piece band, while B-Girl battles with her abusive husband (played by Ashley Lyons) and occasionally finds solace in Clifford’s persona.

All of this is a rather unusual and novel mix of styles and moods, but it’s an intriguing tribute to the complexity of the human spirit. The script, by Ilot and iOTA deliberately and ingeniously collides moments of rock that throws you back in your seat with scenes of domestic drama. It’s disorientating but effective.

B-Girl is about the various, seemingly incongruous versions of ourselves that we create to survive. And it’s about seeking an unattainable freedom.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite have the courage of its convictions to sit and mull over these broader ideas, and instead injects a domestic violence narrative to give the piece some dramatic “heft” from about the halfway point. But its treatment feels exploitative; it’s under-developed and cliched in its approach.

There’s something quite uncomfortable about the two male creators of this work employing gendered violence as a mere plot point, when their focus is not gendered violence at all but something more introspective and contemplative. It feels tacked on to give the work more of a narrative shape, which it doesn’t actually need.

The entire show is almost saved by the sheer chutzpah of iOTA and Best, who represent two sides of the same coin perfectly. It goes without saying that iOTA has a captivating stage presence which puts him in a very small class of performers — there’s constant danger in his performances, but the audience is always completely safe in his hands. And his voice has never sounded more powerful or versatile than it does here, running from the heaviest Led Zeppelin-esque rock to gentle ballads.

Best has played quite a few similarly downtrodden women in recent years, and she does it brilliantly. She’s the type of actor who is instantly endearing and never fails to break audiences’ hearts. She also has a killer rock voice, which blends gorgeously with iOTA’s.

And this is a production which can be literally breathtaking. The sound design is loud but crystal clear, and the lighting is as glorious and overwhelming as you’d expect from any of the biggest rock acts in the world. Clifford’s costume by Heather Cairns is a marvel — showy but an icy blue, reflecting his unbreakable coolness.

These are all extraordinary artists, and that shines through clearly. And this is absolutely the kind of work that the Sydney Opera House should be presenting; a work which wouldn’t find a home with any of Sydney’s theatre companies. It’s just a shame that things have gone slightly off-track.

B-Girl is at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until June 21

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