Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Frontman, Chelsea Theatre

Review: Frontman, Chelsea Theatre

Published on Culture Wars, 02.12.2011

In the past, Action Hero have miniaturised the big screen Western and the stadium daredevil. On one level, Frontman does the same, scaling down arena-sized rock until it could fit into a matchbox.

However, their latest drops any retro charm and droll irony for a more direct approach. This time, despite the roadie in a cute fluffy bunny hat, it’s dead serious.

On a raised stage in a smoke-filled room, Gemma Paintin eventually appears. She wears a sequined cut-short cat-suit with a cute bow on the chest. She sits on a stool, legs at ten to two, and lipsyncs to a live recording of Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel, stomping her right foot. She coos to us with a Marilyn Monroe husk, flattering us as her favourite audience to date, even stepping into our midst for an acoustic, tambourine special.

All this is in contrast to the aggression and noise that will come later, when she screams herself hoarse onstage. A deep roar right from the stomach that squeezes the air out of her lungs. The speakers behind her surge with noise, screeched feedback and deep rumbles that set your insides to vibrate.

That said, it’s nearly not as loud as I was expecting and certainly nothing on Ann Liv Young’s Solo, during which Ain’t So Sunshine seemed to shake the foundations of Battersea Arts Centre in 2009. There’s an unexpected musicality beneath the blasts of sound and it’s a surprise to find your foot tapping along in reflex reaction.

More transparent than their previous works, which have wrapped their ontological enquiries about the nature of performance in more layers, Frontman is itself a front. It’s less a commited exploration of its central figure than a vehicle through which to explore the nature of performance more generally. Focus is largely drawn to the invisible threads between performer and audience. We’re alternately drawn in by warmth and sweet talk, then pushed away with aggression and volume. It’s clear that the former is the route to popularity, but which is the more honest and potent?

There’s a nice line, too, in the relationship between limelight and backstage shadows, but Frontman is largely driven by dichotomies. It’s refusal to admit the existence of grey areas between is to its detriment.

The musical icon proves an adequate mode of performance from which hang what is essentially a performed essay on performance, but it never feels irreplaceable. For all Frontman’s gusto and deftness, it doesn’t fully skewer its subject.

Photograph: Briony Campbell

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