Power Ballad opens with an intense physical routine that immediately sets the surreal tone for the evening. Performer and co-creator Julia Croft enters the stage topless and unhooks the microphone from its stand without using her hands, proceeding to grasp the wire between her toes and wrap it around her body. She writhes around, maintaining the hands-free hold of the mic, gripping it between her thighs, slinging it around her neck, and balancing it on her torso. It’s an impressive display of athleticism and at times is undoubtedly phallic (if not comical). As rock music builds in intensity and volume, the performance borders on the disturbing. The purpose might be a comment on the importance of the female body in the music industry as opposed to the actual female voice (literal and metaphorical), but it’s never completely clear – a theme that permeates the show.
Things begin to take a clearer form when Croft ‘tests’ the audio levels, humorously adjusting and readjusting the volume in a timid manner, presenting us with a stereotypical female stance of apology. Audio manipulation is then cleverly played with as the performer uses equipment to change the pitches of her voice (alternating between traditionally male and female tones) while speaking to the audience in short bursts of monologue, referring to the patriarchy, feminism, and whether or not words have real power. This is the most effective section of the evening as she highlights the difference in perception of ‘feminist theatre’ and, well, every other kind of theatre. We laugh along with her exaggerated outbursts but are also unsure at which points the comedy has ended.
There are also points where the titular power ballads come into play, and the audience is invited to sing along to 80s and 90s pop anthems. This doesn’t really take off though, and apart from feeling rather awkward, it’s again unclear what the purpose is. Maybe it’s connected to the juxtaposition between women’s historical lack of voice in music and the false presentation of female pop stars bellowing ‘powerful’ anthems. But this is purely a guess on the part of this reviewer. There isn’t ever much clarification on stage.
One of the final acts again devolves into voiceless physical theatre as Croft creates live foley work by rubbing the microphone on the stage floor, on an audience member’s trousers, and on her body. She also records looping sounds of amplified noises made by her mouth, like a live ASMR video. The show’s synopsis informs us that its aim is to ‘investigate language’ and ‘attempt to find a new language of pleasure, anger and femaleness.’ By the close, though, it doesn’t feel like this has happened: Instead, we’ve been left with confusion and a new language of sounds that, unfortunately, doesn’t communicate much.