Bitch on Heat at Soho Theatre: a collage of politically powerful, hallucinogenic images
Beginning with a fantastically atmospheric lightning jumpscare, you could almost be forgiven for thinking Bitch on Heat was a horror show; then again, in a way, it totally is. Leah Shelton’s performance art whatsit straddles the line between comedy and terror so expertly that you fear she might cut herself on her own edge.
When the piece, playing at Soho Theatre, begins, we’re greeted by Shelton almost embalmed in a wedding-dress-cum-Greek-pillar that gradually collapses to reveal the performer underneath clad in a latex sex doll outfit. It’s a shocking and hilarious moment that perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the show to come. In it, we open with the creation of woman via the narrated myth of Pandoras box, before continuing to a brilliant exploration of subconscious bias and the cultural messaging that entrenches gender roles in society. It’s a fast-paced, daring examination of what it has always meant to be a woman.
The entire show (well, almost) is performed via immaculately timed lip-sync that canvasses the last century for amusing pop cultural curios and out-of-date attitudes that would be hilarious if they weren’t so alarming. The use of Tom Cruise’s Respect the Cock monologue from Magnolia might come off slightly out of place – you can’t ironically use something that was already ironic to begin with – but for the most part these audio clips are surreal, entertaining, and effectively put forward Shelton’s point about the messaging and signals we receive from the outside world and the ways we internalise them such that they become us. Aside from this, Shelton mimes, dances, puppeteers, and performs an ecstatic pole dance at different parts of the show – every second feels new and energetic, a dramatic evolution from what has come before.
An overpowering, ecstatic soundsystem roars with the energy of a live concert and almost isolates each of us from the audience as a whole. If people are to laugh and cheer – and they do – the rest of us will not hear them. Bitch on Heat becomes more of a hypnotic, individual experience guided by Kenneth Lyons’ insanely accomplished sound design that guides us on waves of increasing intensity.
The set itself is a minimalist marvel, consisting of pristine, ancient Greek pillars surrounding a central ambiguous and constantly morphing statue that becomes a pole (for the pole dancing), a bed, and even a hot tub throughout the runtime. Jason Glenwright’s incredible lighting casts the scene in vaporwave hues of purple and blue and pink, whilst Shelton’s grotesque costume design sees her morphing from sex doll to barbie to leatherface to something out of Korine’s Trash Humpers seamlessly. To sum the whole aesthetic up, it’s like Tobe Hooper fucked David Lynch on the set of Hercules.
This is to say that Bitch on Heat is, ultimately, a collage of powerful hallucinogenic and politicised images – luscious and extravagant and almost reminiscent of early Greenaway, but never overcooked. It’s clean (in presentation, the content is fucking filthy), perfectly sculpted and expertly realised – a totemic vision of the aesthetic as substance. And gradually, almost imperceptibly, the show becomes more serious – darker, questioning, confronting and breaking the fourth wall as the soundtrack shifts into something between synthwave and drone metal. It’s then that the cumulative effect of this spectacular sound and light show fully hits home as a sort of indictment.
Clocking in at just 47 minutes, Bitch on Heat doesn’t overstay its welcome for a second and leaves the audience tantalised for more – that’s a much better place to be, I think, than even slightly bored. It’s a provocative, visually-spectacular and meticulously constructed piece of cinematic performance art that sets up Leah Shelton as a definite one to watch, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.