Beyond the Fence, Arts Theatre, review: Despite my reservations I was won over

The music, piano-led ballads and squealy 80s power-rock, sounds vaguely familiar yet there are no barnstorming, hummable hits

Holly Williams
Saturday 27 February 2016 23:22 GMT
Beyond the Fence
Beyond the Fence

A musical generated by computer: that’s the gimmick of this new show, the creation of which has been followed for a Sky Arts programme. A ‘what if’ computer programme gave them a premise (spoiler alert!): what if a wounded soldier had to learn how to understand a child in order to find true love? Statistical analysis of existing flops and hits came up with key structural points. Language and music generating software spewed out tunes and lines; the team “curated” them into a show. The writer Nathan Taylor, however, alighted on the setting of Greenham Common peace camp.

The result, as you might expect, feels formulaic. The music, piano-led ballads and squealy 80s power-rock, sounds vaguely familiar yet there are no barnstorming, hummable hits. The direction of the plot would be visible from space. Several of the women at the camp don’t get past a three-word character sketch: horny Welsh woman; cheerful chubby Northerner; bad-attitude black girl; motherly old biddy. Also, somehow knowing the whole thing’s been carefully constructed to push all the right buttons acts as an emotional block or distancing effect. Well, for a while…

Because despite my reservations, it won me over. Greenham is a great setting for a musical, with plenty of conflict: there are skirmishes with thuggish squaddies and policemen, internal ideological infighting between the women, and finally a higher battle of ideals which goes all the way to saving the goddamn human race.

There’s also a lot of love; if the many yay-women songs are overly chirpy and pat, it’s still great to see a whole cast of non-sexualised, politically active, lively, passionate women who support each other. Beyond the Fence would pass the Bechdel Test with flying, rainbow colours – speaking of which, it’s also a quiet credit to the show that half the characters are lesbians, and yet the only woman whose character is defined by her sexual appetites is a straight one.

The plot strand that really moves, however, involves the child. Well of course it does. George is mute - yet she strikes up a gentle friendship with an American army officer on the other side of the fence. This could be mawkish in the extreme, and the tentative romance between him and her mum remains chemistry-free, but they have a secret weapon in young actress Hollie Owen. Shy, wan and tiny, she gives a hugely sensitive performance, even when she’s got a bucket on her head… there’s a little magic star underneath.

Still, I wonder if the computer-generated tag will help or hinder: it’s hard to think you’d watch the show without being more interested in the process than the product. And am I being romantic in thinking it’s telling that while the story and songs work fine, the thing that makes it zing is the human-chosen setting? Maybe, but I don’t think theatre-makers need to start smashing computers any time soon.

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