London's newest musical is a surreal and satiricial delight
I don't know about you, but I loathe The X-Factor. Harmless light entertainment it might well be, but to me it symbolises everything that is wrong with the modern world, pandering to obsessions with celebrity and fame. So when I heard about I Can't Sing: The X-Factor Musical I wasn't sure what to expect. But to my delight, it holds up a mirror to pop culture and show-biz, showing it for the narcissistic, laughable and at times utterly insane world that it is, and the result is a show that is both comic gold and genuinely heart-warming.
The bulk of the story follows the blossoming romance between two X-Factor wannabes - down-on-his-luck and slightly goofy plumber Max who plays the ukelele and wants to win "for his three-year-old brother" and orphan Chenice who lives in a caravan under a London flyover with her dying grandfather. Chenice is convinced she can't sing but is persuaded by Max to audition anyway.
Both characters are deliberate exaggerations of the "back story" that wins over the viewers and (apparently) makes for great television. And just when you think they can't pack in any more tragedy and downtrodden-ness into a character's story, Chenice is forced to hand over her mother's wedding ring - "the only thing I've got left" - to a Dickensian undertaker in exchange for her grandfather's ashes. The undertaker's shop is also cruelly named "It's Over".
It's over the top, surreal, very funny and completely non-aggressive in the way that shock comedy and satire these days rarely is. Still, writers Harry Hill and Steve Brown pulled few punches when it came to the parodies of the X-Factor judges themselves. Louis Walsh is a doddery, bumbling old duffer who seems completely unaware of what's going on most of the time; Jordy, the parody of Cheryl Cole, is all big hair and pouty lips but with no discernible musical talent of her own, which she happily draws attention to; but it is Simon Cowell himself, the "patron saint of fame", that receives the brunt of the show's send-ups.
If you've ever watched Cowell in action on The X-Factor, Britain's Got Talent, American Idol or any of his other franchises, you would be aware that he's blunt and often controversial in his criticisms, insults and wisecracks about contestants and their abilities. In fact, he has been known to utter the very words "you can't sing" to desperate, tearful hopefuls who have lined up since dawn to sing their hearts out in front of him. As a result, Cowell's approval and good opinion appear to be well worth the earning, a sign of real talent. However, he did sign One Direction so perhaps the jury's still out on that one!
Apparently Simon Cowell himself approved the entire script and didn't ask for anything to be changed. If you didn't know this, and that his production company Syco had invested in the show to boot, you'd assume Harry Hill and Steve Brown would be hearing from his lawyers! So perhaps real-life Cowell has a sense of humour, a really thick skin, or both.
Nevertheless, the Simon character in I Can't Sing enjoys a god-like status, literally appearing from the heavens on a cloud, with an adoring public, a Valkyrie chorus heralding his arrival and fawning staff ready and willing to meet his every need. Brilliantly brought to life by Nigel Harman, Simon revels in his fabulousness and shows his trademark ruthlessness at every opportunity, betraying his contestant proteges purely for the sake of ratings and appearances. It's hilarious, admittedly, but you suspect this over-the-top heartlessness isn't too far from what really goes on behind the scenes of our celebrity obsessed world where everyone is desperate to claim their elusive fifteen minutes of fame at any price.
It's a catchy show - from the tunes belted out by the players who, despite the show's title, can sing (very well); to the bright and dazzling costumes and the elaborately constructed and detailed sets that effortlessly switch from Chenice's derelict caravan to Simon's plush and modern dressing room. The actors are fantastic - Cynthia Erivo is truly dazzling as Chenice and Nigel Harman commands the stage as Simon; they get great support from Simon Lipkin as Barlow the talking dog, Billy Carter as the camp TV producer and Simon Bailey as Liam O'Deary, the toadying Irish host. There's even an actor who plays the wind - dressed in a sky-print costume with tassels and a giant white wig, who whips the prized X-Factor contestant number out of Chenice's grasp a few times. "Three years at RADA, ladies and gentlemen," notes the talking dog Barlow as Wind cavorts around the stage. He then leaves in a huff.
So if, like me, you sometimes despair at the vacuousness of pop culture and would rather wear a garbage bag than a onesie, you will enjoy seeing the absurdity of that world magnified and turned on its head and come away feeling slightly reassured that you're not the only one who wishes talent shows were truly about talent.
And with I Can't Sing currently the talk of London's theatre world, who knows what other reality shows might be up for a roasting next. I personally am all in favour of Masterchef the musical. Surely cooking wouldn't get tougher than that?!
I Can’t Sing! The X Factor Musical is showing at the London Palladium and runs until October 25. For more info and tickets see the I Can’t Sing! web site.