I Can't Sing! - review: Simon Cowell's X Factor musical has a bonkers surreal charm
London Palladium: It's an unanticipated 'Yes' from theatre critic Paul Taylor
Thursday 27 March 2014
A satire on The X Factor that's been endorsed and partly financed by Simon Cowell sounds an improbable proposition – equivalent to imagining a big West End revival of Pravda blessed and partly bankrolled by Rupert Murdoch.
In addition to the conflict-of-interest question, there were the troubling reports of cancelled performances and delays of up to an hour between the two acts during a preview period plagued by technical problems. None of this inspired confidence.
So it's with some surprise that I must confess to having really rather enjoyed this £6m musical spoof concocted by comedian Harry Hill, composer Steve Brown and director Sean Foley.
I'm not saying “I Can't Kvetch!” because there are all kinds of niggles and caveats – not least that the whole venture feels more than a tad belated.
But there is a bonkers, surreal charm to the loopy lampooning and though the authors may not be wielding a stiletto, they are not brandishing a back-scratcher either. And talking of backs, how could one wholly resist a show that that barmily embodies the idea of the obligatory tear-jerking back-story in the grotesque hump of a rapping Quasimodo-figure (Charlie Baker) who swings in on a bell-rope and tells us (and I think this was where my resistance started to break) that he is going to sing “Build Me Up Buttercup” by the Foundations.
I Can't Sing! stars former EastEnders actor Nigel Harman (centre) as a character inspired by Simon Cowell
Nigel Harman's deliciously funny performance nails the narcissistic-android quality of the high-waisted pop mogul who chose a mirror as his Desert Island luxury. In the song “Please Simon” he descends on a cloud like the Messiah to a crowd of vying petitioners; he performs a couple of ludicrously short-lived miracles on the lame and the blind; even the Avenue Q-style dog (called Barlow, presumably after Gary) gets the hots for him.
Of course, you could argue that sending Cowell up through mock-deification is not infallibly calculated to cut his ego down to size. But there's a mad overkill to the strategy that's reprehensibly entertaining. For example, at the start, the excellent graphics zoom us down from the furthest reaches of the galaxy to the point on earth where the schoolboy Cowell is having a lightbulb moment about the reality TV of the future: “I see a nation that rejoices/Because the people make the choices”. It's like being present at the invention of the wheel.
Living in a caravan under a flyover with one electrical plug and a grandfather in an iron lung, the heroine Chenice has never seen The X Factor but she's a natural and Cynthia Erivo makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention with her elating rendition of the damnably catchy“I Can't Sing”.
As she and her ukele-playing plumber boyfriend (charming Alan Morrisey) compete on the show, there are barely-disguised variants of previous contestants (Jedward, Tesco Mary, Wagner et al) and judges Cheryl Cole, Louis Walsh and a figure renamed Liam O'Deary (spot-on Simon Bailey) who sings an amusingly idiotic number about his compulsion to hug total strangers.
The strain of upping the satirical ante on a programme that long ago lunged into self-parody sometimes tells. But there are some sharp digs at the manipulativeness of the process. The plumber's defiance of Simon's song-choices and his taste for the derivative in the simple, affecting “Song I Wrote For You” is a liberating highlight.
On the whole, then, it's an unanticipated yes from me.
To October 25 ; 0844 811 0058
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 This is what happens when you tattoo Charmander on yourself, drunk, and with no experience
- 2 BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
- 3 18th century sex toy found in 'toilet of sword fighting school' in Poland
- 4 The Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer has leaked – watch
- 5 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a white stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
Russian warships in English Channel 'to conduct anti-aircraft and anti-submarine military drills'