Frontman is a portrait of the artist as dying cultural icon. Packed with energy, nostalgia and humour, it’s a piece that collapses from the centre outwards rather than from the edges. Action Hero are interested in ideas of fade out and comeback and this thematic terrain is explored with both irony and empathy. The company have developed a particular kind of stage language, one which appropriates the conventions and constraints of a gig.
Their work takes the shape of clever cultural pastiche. Frontman seeks to subvert the idea of the frontman figure by introducing vulnerability and catastrophe into the mix. There’s a constant interplay between the conventions of the piece – which takes the form of a live music gig, complete with lip-syncing and a dodgy haze-machine – and the unfolding relationships between Gemma Paintin, the ‘frontman’ in her sequinned outfit, and the frustrated techie played by Action Hero’s other half, James Stenhouse. They are the band that never was and we are their demanding audience. One can’t help but think of Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain or Iggy Pop, but there’s also a question of ‘what if’ that dominates the piece, sometimes stretching it to extremes: there is a sense of physical confrontation, walls of noise that wash over the audience, leaving traces of the unsaid behind
Though the results are deliberately uncanny, they also contain their fair share of interpretive gaps; it’s these that make and break the show. There’s a juxtaposition between the scripted performance and the raw liveness: the piece exists at the juncture between the two. As such, Frontman is ambitious, manipulative and at times, powerful in its theatrical propositions; it uses audience anticipation as a tool. People are led to expect a gig but they receive something else. It also examines the damage done by the passage of time on a cultural icon, the process of erosion, the echo of empty sounds; lip-syncing is used to offset the reality of the performance and the sheer volume of the piece is like an emotional downpour.
It’s a playful and engaging piece that meets its subject head on, but it doesn’t spend enough time on its particularities. Frontman is packed with potential narratives. Yet the imposed coherence feels misleading, allowing the scripted to dominate, diluting the sense of liveness. As such, there’s an awkward quality to much of the piece, and misdirected anger and disappointment are triggered in the audience all too soon; the avoidance of a backstory also has the effect of diluting some of the potency of the encounters between the two performers and between the performers and the audience.
Nevertheless, Frontman is an engaging and complex work, one which grapples bravely with the potentially problematic areas of anti-climax and let down. It’s a piece that interrogates the idea of limitation and failure. Paintin makes a highly intriguing protagonist, anger burning under the surface, her disappointment overtly expressed, a potent portrait of what it takes to stand out there under the lights and look an audience in the eye.
Read Diana Damian’s interview with Action Hero.