I Can't Sing! - review: Simon Cowell's X Factor musical has a bonkers surreal charm

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London Palladium: It's an unanticipated 'Yes' from theatre critic Paul Taylor

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 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

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