Elena Knox's latest musical art-theatre project is a difficult thing.
She aims to depict the transformation of Bild-Lilli, a West German newspaper cartoon character first penned in 1952 – an independent young lass with a quick-wit and enormous heels – into the mass-marketed and decidedly less sassy Barbie monster now sold by the Mattel corporation. It's an idea that has legs, particularly as a narrative through which to confront the dismal distortions of the human body beneath the screw of globalist corporatism, but, as with Barbie herself, these legs meet nowhere but an ineffectual zone of artless desolation, unlikely to yield audiences much in the way of lasting joy.
Watching Knox drift hesitantly around the enormous space, with ghastly silences looming in every direction, is painful. The minimalist lighting and set, rather than suggesting the intimacy of a nightclub or pub, environments where Knox is known to thrive, instead suggest loneliness and isolation. This might be appropriate enough for her subject, the sense of alienation experienced by Bild-Lilli as she is stolen, cloned, denied her culture and her sexuality, renamed, repackaged and re-valued, but it works directly against Knox's own theatrical impulse, which craves a warmer and more playful relationship with the audience.
A number of highlights do come to mind – evocative doll-like makeup, a volatile Schizer dog, a cleverly built tube that holds the life-sized doll and the striking costumes (though the memory of Knox tottering on those nasty heels is even stronger) – but there is an untidiness to the compilation of the various parts and an unwillingness to fully commit to the comedy in her material which comes across more as a fault of craft and a want of dramaturgy than retro eclecticism.
The sound design does very little for a voice that is already quite weak, and she could definitely stand to push up the volume a little on the pre-recorded tracks, so that it's not all so uncomfortably polite. Her confidence seems to double as soon as she steps behind the bass guitar, and the Young Marble Giants-ish post-punk numbers are by far her strongest, along with a winning bit about a doll with its head on backwards, looking back to the past, as it were.
Once Knox has a better feeling for the Tower Theatre and has settled into her routine, and given the right audience, this show will no doubt improve significantly, but there will still be questions about the thinness of her material, which skips too clumsily across different comic registers and its various poltical and cultural focuses.