Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, June 9

iOTA as fantasy glam-rocker Clifford North. Photo: Daniel Boud

iOTA as fantasy glam-rocker Clifford North. Photo: Daniel Boud

B-Girl begins in silence with a jumpy young woman sitting nervously at a kitchen table. Suddenly musical chords crash and roar and iOTA appears silhouetted in blue light: an androgynous, glam-rock god in all his strutting glory. Talk about an entrance.

Since bursting onto the theatre scene in 2006, iOTA has established himself as a bona fide star with gender-bending performances in the cult musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, his concept show Smoke & Mirrors, and the Rocky Horror Show.

You can certainly see why director Craig Ilott (who collaborated with him on Hedwig and Smoke & Mirrors) might come up with the idea of a show, featuring iOTA as a fantasy glam-rocker.

As you’d expect, he’s phenomenal: sexy, enigmatic, commanding attention whenever he’s on stage. However, the show itself is a strange hybrid between a concept album and a theatre work, with a clunky structure and flimsy plot.

Co-written by Ilott and iOTA, with original songs by iOTA, B-Girl is about troubled young woman called Rachel (Blazey Best), who uses music to escape the grim reality of life with an abusive husband (Ashley Lyons). Dreaming up the glam-rocking Clifford North (iOTA), he gradually becomes more than just a figment of her imagination, giving her the strength to pack her bags and leave.

Nicholas Dare’s set design is pure rock concert, with the band on stage, a walkway over their heads, and a back wall of LED lights. Matt Marshall’s stunning lighting and the sound levels are equally rock ‘n’ roll.

A standard lamp and a table and chairs on the corners of the stage represent Rachel’s home. However, the domestic scenes feel sketchily simplistic and aren’t convincingly integrated into the show. You find yourself wanting more of Clifford instead – so much so you can’t help wondering whether it would be better if he had just told a similar story about abuse, domination and freedom through song alone in a solo show.

Blazey Best and iOTA. Photo: B-Girl

Blazey Best and iOTA. Photo: B-Girl

That’s no disrespect to Best (who also performed with iOTA in Hedwig). Though her character isn’t given much dramatic complexity, she brings a powerful emotional rawness and strong vocals to the part, while Lyons is suitably menacing in the thankless role of her violent husband.

But it’s iOTA’s show. Costumed by Heather Cairns, he is a vision in electric blue Lycra with platform boots, feathers and silver sequins. You can’t take your eyes off him. And his voice is better than ever.

He’s written some sensational songs, ranging from dirty, thrusting rock to soulful ballads and he sings the hell out of them, powering in rock mode one minute then the next, caressing gentle melodies in heart-breaking fashion. Backed by a fierce four-piece band, led by Joe Accaria on drums, the show really fires musically.

So, B-Girl is a strangely mixed experience, let down by some under-developed dramaturgy. However, iOTA’s fans won’t be disappointed by his electrifying performance.

B-Girl plays until June 21. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 14

The Way Things Work

Bondi Pavilion, November 11

Ashley Lyons and nicholas Papademetriou. Photo: Zak Kaczmarek

Ashley Lyons and nicholas Papademetriou. Photo: Zak Kaczmarek

For his final production as artistic director of Rock Surfers Theatre Company, Leland Kean is directing a new Australian play by Aidan Fennessy called The Way Things Work, which won the inaugural Rock Surfers/Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder (CJZ) Playwriting Commission.

A dark satire about corruption in NSW, from the highest level down to the criminal underbelly, Fennessy won’t have needed to look far for inspiration with the newspapers full of corruption allegations on both sides of NSW politics and elsewhere in the private sector.

Investigative journalist Kate McClymont was a guest on opening night and in a short speech afterwards confirmed that the fiction on stage wasn’t that far removed from reality.

The Way Things Work unfolds in three sections with two actors playing three sets of characters.

The play opens with Minister Barlow (Nicholas Papademetriou) feeling the heat. The Minister (who surname has lent itself to umpteen scathing headlines) has overseen the construction of a multi-million dollar East-West road tunnel, funded by a public-private partnership. He has brought it in on time and on budget. The trouble is, it’s already beginning to crumble because it was built using ordinary concrete not the required “special concrete” and will eventually cost taxpayers vastly more to repair than it did to build.

The project is now the subject of a Royal Commission and the Minister is keen that certain behind-the-scenes deals are not revealed. He calls his departmental secretary (Ashley Lyons), a senior public servant, in for a meeting and puts pressure on him to “forget” a certain name.

In the second section, we meet the two Greek-Australian brothers whose company supplied the concrete and who are engaged in a power struggle of their own as their company is about to be bought out by a major media conglomerate.

The third section features a prison warden (Papademetriou) and a prisoner (Lyons) who have forged a close relationship over many years. The warden has just enlisted the prisoner as a hit man to prevent another of the inmates testifying at the commission, but there is more bubbling away beneath the surface.

Kean, who designed the set as well as directing, stages the play in a concrete box, which changes under Luiz Pampolha’s noir-ish lighting but which lends the piece a consistently tangible feeling of brutality, ruthlessness and claustrophobia, heightened by Jed Silver’s sound.

On opening night Papademetriou rather overplayed the Minister so that the character verged on the cartoonish, undercutting any genuine sense of reality. Some of the dialogue he was given also stretched credibility a little.

But Papademetriou settled down in the next two scenes with two far more potent, believable characterisations and as the play progressed the tension built nicely.

Lyons gives a chameleon-like performance, morphing convincingly from the anxious public servant determined not to compromise his integrity, to the cocky, blinged-up brother, to the prisoner whose sense of betrayal is surprisingly touching.

Running a tight 100-minutes, Kean keeps the action taut, driven by a macho energy. After a somewhat shaky start, The Way Things Work becomes a darkly funny, entertaining play that will certainly resonate with Sydneysiders.

The Way Things Work plays at Bondi Pavilion until November 29. Bookings: www.rocksurfers.org or 1300 241 167