Few opening announcements are as incendiary as that being nightly played in the Battersea Arts Centre's Council Chamber. Ballad of the Burning Star, Theatre Ad Infinitum's complex and searing drag cabaret show about Israel, opens with a bomb warning; thanks to its provocative subject matter, we're warned, someone might try to blow us all up at any second. The gesture is playfully tongue in cheek, but startling nonetheless.
It's a fitting start, priming audiences for the unsettling tightrope of irreverence and seriousness that Ballad of the Burning Star walks throughout, teetering on fabulous platform heels. The show is motored by the formidable central force of Nir Paldi, who has written and directed the piece, as well as starring as its commanding cabaret host Star. Assisted by her chorus of Starlets, whom she relentlessly chides and terrorises, Star narrates the story of a young boy growing up in Israel, a narrative that quickly comes to speak more widely about the state of the nation.
The framing of the piece is as smart as it is surprising. The loud, brash, fearless character of Star allows Paldi to take risks that would not otherwise be possible, distancing himself – an Israeli – from his material and setting up a devastating final turn. Star and her Starlets, who dance with unnervingly regimented precision, also act as metaphors within the piece, the taut tension between them suggesting the volatile fault lines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The threat of imminent detonation constantly hovers.
Through both the central narrative and the gaudy trappings of its telling, Ballad of the Burning Star depicts a collective identity crisis, as Israel and its people wrestle with the complexity of oppressed turning into oppressor. The knottiness of this issue is never denied, at once recognising the horror of centuries of anti-Semitism and the danger of the acts it is used to justify. Even language is unstable, as Star wavers between the politically loaded words "occupied" and "liberated". Elsewhere, Paldi daringly plays with the tedium of atrocity, as the Starlets rattle off a history of Jewish persecution that is as deadening as it is horrifying.
Given the multi-layered ingenuity of the cabaret form, it is unfortunate that this is played to a steep rake of seating at Battersea Arts Centre. The stifling intimacy that the show cultivated during its Edinburgh run last summer is a little lost here, sacrificing the claustrophobia that made it even more explosive, while the acoustics do not work in its favour. Despite the enforced distance of this new staging, however, Ballad of the Burning Star still packs one hell of a punch. And in the final moments, as the make-up is finally stripped away, no amount of distance can shield from its impact.