There’s a brilliantly excoriating satire to be written on the get-rich-quick-without-doing-the-leg-work world of ‘Talent Show Television’, and in particular Simon Cowell’s format behemoth and cash cow that is The X Factor.
Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee did it for the world of the talk show in Jerry Springer The Opera, but I’m afraid the exceptionally glossy and obviously very expensively produced I Can’t Sing! – allegedly with a budget in excess of £6 Million – which opened last night at The London Palladium, in spite of slick choreography, some groundbreaking and genuinely thrilling special effects, and a cast with whom it really would be very difficult to find fault, does more to endorse the talent show format, and The X Factor in particular, as the cut-throat greenback-driven creator of musical homogeneity for which its critics so often castigate it, than to attack it.
Given that Cowell’s own Syco Entertainment is, however, itself one of the producers, it hardly surprising that the show excels in all those areas where throwing cash at a problem have most effect.
The music is superbly produced, as you would expect, and Phil Bateman’s vocal arrangements coupled with Chris Egan’s orchestrations lend genuine power to the piece at times. The opening of Act Two for example, where a chorus of gold lame-clad Valkyries welcome Simon’s arrival is a wall of glorious sound – ably assisted it must be added by Gareth Owen’s superlative sound design.
However, strip away the glitz, the gloss, the sequins, ostrich feathers and rhinestones, and pare it back to its bare essentials, and the show has a real problem, ironically caused by the very presence of Svengali ‘Simon’ (Nigel Harmon) himself.
The show starts with the story of how Simon (Cowell) morphs from spotty suburban schoolboy to media and talent-show manipulator before our eyes. As soon as that is established, it then becomes – notionally at least – the story of Chenice, the wonderfully talented Cynthia Erivo, who falls for Max the plumber, Alan Morrissey, who has accidentally killed her iron-lung-bound grandfather, when he short circuits the electricity supply in their caravan.
She claims not to be able to sing, but (surprise, surprise) she can, and rather well, and ends up in the final of The X Factor. All to the good, though not a particularly sympathetic set of protagonists.
However, the major problem is that every time Simon (Nigel Harman, who has top billing on all the publicity material, and is certainly the ‘named’ draw for a non-theatre-going audience) appears on the stage, the show becomes about him.
As a consequence, Chenice gets pushed out of the way from an emotional point of view, and we don’t really care about her. And why should we? She happily goes along with all the manipulation her mentor Jordy, Victoria Elliot, can throw at her. A rather half hearted attempt towards the end at a moral comes too late and is just not credible.
As for the music and lyrics? Steve Brown’s music rarely rises above the banal, with the notable exception of the Act Two song, ‘The Song I Wrote ForYou’, sung by the character of Max, which is genuinely tuneful, and quite touching.
As I mentioned, Thomas and Lee’s Jerry Springer really did hit home, and I can only assume it was the model used by Brown and Hill. As well as getting to the idea of ‘the Inner Valkyrie’ first by a good ten years (see above), in Jerry Springer The Opera the character of God songs a whole number titled ‘It Ain’t Easy Being Me’.
In Act Two of I Can’t Sing! the character of Simon has a strikingly similar song, ‘You Think It‘s Easy Being Me’ which contains the lines ‘Look at me I’m on fire, I’m the Goddam Messiah’. As the saying goes, nobody every went bankrupt underestimating the taste of the Great British public…
On a more positive note, I’ve rarely seen such an ethnically diverse audience in a West End auditorium for a mainstream show, which must give hope for live theatre, though I couldn’t help but notice how young a very large proportion of the audience seemed to be. I’m inclined to question who the show is aimed at. It certainly wasn’t 46 year old male reviewers.