Friday 28 March 2014

I Can't Sing!

Palladium, London


Music and lyrics by Steve Brown
Book and additional lyrics by Harry Hill
Directed by Sean Foley 


Nigel Harman

Christmas has come early to the London Palladium as I Can't Sing! - The X Factor Musical lampoons modern Britain in a hilarious pantomime of a show. Merciless in its satirical view on Simon Cowell, the judges and all of the rituals that comprise the eponymous talent show, nor stinting in mocking itself, this is a glorious festival of frivolity, that also carries a message both about and to, a modern cynical audience.

The “boy meets girl” story may be a shallow clich√©, yet around this cheesy structure, Harry Hill has crafted moments of comic brilliance. Speaking to The Stage newspaper after opening night Cowell, who has co-produced the show, says of Hill that "in TV Burp he used to take the piss out of (the X Factor) every week, but in a really fun way. He approached it with a sense of humour and observation" and it's that observation that gives this show it's bite. Contestants, hosts and celebrities are mocked perceptively, yet amongst the satire and the corny romance, there's a number in the first act sung by the show’s two lovebirds, Missing You Already, that combines honest emotion with on screen projections of the lyrics transcribed into tender text messages. It’s a clever touch that speaks to today's teenagers.

But the real strength of I Can’t Sing! lies in the human talents on and off stage. Nigel Harman's portrayal of Cowell is a brave assault on a living icon. Harman pulls it off, notably in the lavish tap number Uncomplicated Love, giving the media tycoon a strong hint of Chicago's Billy Flynn. Preposterously overstated maybe, but it works. The reality show's host, Dermot O'Leary is similarly scrutinised with Simon Bailey's brilliant Liam O'Deary being the (cynical) highlight of the evening. The heroine, Chenice, who hails from the wrong side of the tracks is accompanied everywhere by her pet dog Barlow and building upon his puppetry skills deployed in Avenue Q, Simon Lipkin animates the dog with flair and pinpoint wit. Katy Secombe (a spitting image of dad Harry) gives a cracking turn as a Susan Boyle supermarket misfit whilst playing the other half of the loving leads, Alan Morrissey puts in a credible shift as Max, a ukulele playing plumber with an alter ego as a singer songwriter.

Simon Lipkin, Cynthia Erivo, Alan Morrissey

It is however in Cynthia Erivo’s creation of Chenice, that this show has cemented the reputation of one of the West End’s newest stars. Playing a typically ditsy self-deprecating heroine who through the show learns to believe in herself, it is not until 40 minutes into the first half when Erivo sings the title number, that she displays her vocal process. Chenice is yet another stunning performance from this elegantly framed lady whose voice is sweet, rare and profoundly powerful. When she sings, she captivates and even though it is Harman’s name that tops the bill, it is Erivo who deservedly takes the final curtain call.

In many respects I Can’t Sing! is a glorious celebration of contemporary British musical theatre. Blessed with tycoon producers who have been able to invest millions in a show that notwithstanding being totally bonkers, actually strings together some good tunes, some great gags and all on a set that designer Es Devlin has been allowed to spend a fortune upon, all makes for a fun night out. It's not perfect though. Some of the writing is a tad too silly and the ending will leave jaws dropped at such a flamboyant re-definition of “ridiculous”. There is also little to appeal to foreign tourists who will be unfamiliar with the ridicule of our domestic idiosyncrasies and even more importantly, among the home market that consumes Cowell’s broadcast output, many will find the price of London tickets prohibitive. The show may well not be due the longest of runs at the Palladium, but it sure as heck deserves to tour. The regions have contributed much to Cowell’s wealth and they are entitled to this show being taken on the road.

I Cant Sing! presents a technically excellent company delivering clever and innovative work. And in Cynthia Erivo’s performance, one is surely witnessing what has to be the West End’s very own X Factor.

Now booking through 2014

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