Who Gets to Dance, and Who Gets to Speak? A Review of POWER
POWER is a fun and feisty tribute to female pop music, which takes great delight in throwing away the ‘guilt’ in ‘guilty pleasure’. So how deep does the feminism go, and what’s missing? New Volumes critic Rachael Longshaw-Park reviews.
Everyone has a guilty music pleasure, right? A few artists we don’t care to broadcast our love for. Spotify knows what’s up, after all, they created private browsing for a reason. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve spent many a time jamming out to some artists that would absolutely ruin my credibility, but it begs the question: Why so much shame? What makes it guilty? And who decides that? Music is inherently subjective, and yet for some reason pop music, notably female pop music, has a stigma like no other. Four women – Elizabeth Connor, Emma Maguire, Talia Carlisle and Sara Cowdell – take to the Basement mainstage to revel in their pleasure and shed the shame associated with female pop music.
The show begins with a bass-heavy, hip-shaking performance, filled with plenty of hair flicking and seductive looks as all four women dance their hearts out, with choreography by Joanne Hobern. The stage, lit with stadium-esque lighting and a wash of pink, is completely bare except for a few chairs, which see plenty of gyrating action as the night goes on. Each member wears their own version of the pop group uniform tailored to their own style, reminiscent of the iconic fashion ensembles of 90s pop groups (think Steps in 1999).
After the applause subsides from the opening number, the first woman to speak is POWER creator, Sara Cowdell. Her delivery is very casual and unrehearsed, peppered with “um’s” and “ah’s”, a sort of subversive monologuing, challenging the slickness that we expect from theatrical performance. Cowdell delivers a short recollection of working at a Little Mix gig in 2017 amongst a sea of teenage girls and their rich mothers, failing to understand what the fuss was all about. That was until Cowdell found herself with a free ticket and soon discovered the irresistible call of girl power pop.
POWER, in its simplest form, is a lip-syncing tribute act to British all-female pop group Little Mix. The backbone of the show is constructed from songs picked from the Little Mix back catalogue interspersed with storytelling to flesh out the fifty minutes. But Cowdell’s opening story is the first and last time we hear specifically about Little Mix, and about pop music shame; instead, the music becomes a soundtrack to a different set of stories.
The most exciting moments of POWER – and some of the strongest performances – come from the sheer amount of fun the performers all seem to be having when they dance. As the show progresses each performer starts to relax into the songs, letting themselves play a little more with each number. Each time they hit a synchronised power move, perform a solo lip sync, or react to the lyrics with an ironic look to the audience, the joy is clear and infectious. Pop music is contagious and combined with the joy that emanates from these unabashed pop lovers it’s hard not to find yourself tapping and whooping.
While the best performances of the show are in the lip-synced dance numbers, the most interesting parts of the show are the stories. At times the anecdotes seem to relate to the song that came immediately beforehand, but this setup isn’t consistently clear. They cover a wide range of topics all relating to the performers’ experiences as women, and all intimate. A dream about triumphantly flashing vaginas from the top of Pride Rock provokes laughter. Another performer’s story of how her own perspective of her first sexual encounter drastically changed when she learnt more about consent is met with audible murmurs of acknowledgement and shared pain.
The delivery of these stories is extremely colloquial and non-performative; real stories delivered by the real women, rather than personas.
The delivery of these stories is extremely colloquial and non-performative; real stories delivered by the real women, rather than personas. By choosing to deliver the stories in this way it really allows for the personalities of the four women to shine through and I find myself drawn in by their idiosyncrasies. They’re endearing, strong willed, funny, and with this the performance space switches to an incredibly intimate shared space with the audience.
The contrast between the anecdotes and the musical numbers is huge, and by creating these two spaces it sets up clearly two defined modes for the audience to engage with. Unfortunately, when we flick between songs and stories the transitions are clunky, with large gaps of silence and some nervous looks.
What strikes me the most, reflecting on POWER is that, just like Little Mix, it mostly presents easy, palatable ideas of feminism and the female experience. It’s fun and it’s loud, it’s empowerment without going into the deeper mechanics, and mostly it’s just about having a damn good time. Which is great, and there is no rule that every theatre show must tackle deeper political or social concepts. The catch, however, is that POWER promised more: the show’s blurb promised “emotional feminist rants” created for “the destruction of the patriarchy”. Does it deliver this? Well, I suppose that comes down to what you look for in your feminism and your theatre. It delivers a rocking good time with the beginnings of what could be some moments of sincere reflection, but needs stronger creative guidance and coherence in order to achieve what is promised.
As theatre-makers, and as artists of any kind, we should be constantly having conversations with ourselves about the work that we make and the effect it can have once it’s put out there into the world.
As theatre-makers, and as artists of any kind, we should be constantly having conversations with ourselves about the work that we make and the effect it can have once it’s put out there into the world. With this in mind, I’d like to look more closely at a section of POWER that feels problematic. During the song “Strip”, a song about empowering women with lyrics like “Take off all my make-up 'cause I love what's under it. Rub off all your words, don't give a, uh”, a new performer is introduced. The unnamed performer (a non-binary person of colour) takes centre stage and performs a strip tease, tantalising the audience and the four women on stage with a sexy routine that culminates in a lap dance for Cowdell. To be clear, I am pro any kind of work in which a woman or non-binary person feels they have power, whether that’s stripping or being a CEO, so nudity, stripping and enjoying showing off your naked body is definitely not what made me feel uncomfortable in this number. Instead, it was the image of a person of colour, silent, sexualised and utilised for a single song, in a show created by predominantly white women, that made me uncomfortable.
In creating an explicitly feminist show, it’s important to consider the possible readings of the images you project. Especially around your natural blind spots as a creator. Otherwise you’re just using feminism, not practicing it. I didn’t get a sense that the creators considered this angle when they chose to place a non-binary person of colour on stage in this narrow and non-speaking role. It appeared to have been chosen as a way rejecting male gaze and taking back the power. But when you deny a chance to add a different perspective to the narratives of feminism in your show, you add to an ongoing trend of white women dominating the feminist conversation and silencing women and non-binary people of colour. Whether intentional or not.
It’s very easy for white makers to accidentally create work that actively silences, adds to damaging narratives or neglects to acknowledge relevant intersections, purely because of their own blindspots.
Now, I must take a moment and recognise that I am speaking as a white woman, perhaps erring on speaking for a person of colour, which also makes me culpable of the same mistake of silencing or speaking for minority groups. But I’m also speaking as a white theatre maker intent on intersectional feminist practice, reviewing a feminist show, and the biggest thing I’ve learnt is that it’s very easy for white makers to accidentally create work that actively silences, adds to damaging narratives or neglects to acknowledge relevant intersections, purely because of their own blindspots. I’ve also learnt that there needs to be space for people to actively reflect, learn and grow from these mistakes. So, it’s important to question and interrogate any work that strives to deliver politicised content. Admirably, POWER engages with the challenge to dismantle the patriarchy. But we cannot dismantle the patriarchy with just white women’s voices.
POWER runs from 16–20 July at Basement Theatre. Tickets available here.
This piece is presented as part of our New Volumes critical writing partnership with Basement Theatre. Basement Theatre covers the costs of paying our writers while we retain all editorial control. You can read more about the programme here.
Photos: Peter Jennings