Theatre Review: I Can’t Sing!

Date Posted: 31/03/2014

Harry Hill gives his trademark satirical treatment to The X-Factor in new West End musical comedy, I Can’t Sing! Helen Cannon reviews this hotly-anticipated Simon Cowell-backed production.

I was in two minds about what to expect from this spoof musical, whose lead producer is the media mogul himself, Simon Cowell. I thought it might be another ego-driven money-making promotion from the ever smug high-waisted one, purely for The X-Factor fandom (a camp I have never been close to being in).

But then there was a flicker of hope when I heard Harry Hill had penned I Can't Sing! I am an unashamed fan of Harry Hill; his TV Burp series where he sends-up trashy television is both surreally bonkers and hilarious. There was no sight of comedy character Wagbo in this musical but both his 'parents' featured as did a chorus of bizarre characters and oddballs including the RADA-trained wind, Trevormodo - the medieval hunchback, Tesco Mary, and Barlow (as in Gary) the talking dog. And now you can start to understand the off-the-wall madness made in the mind of the high-collared one.

Harry Hill's signature was apparent from the off; the musical is eccentric, satirical and genuinely funny. This maybe should have been produced a few years ago when The X-Factor was more in its heyday, although it still resonates and as long as your TV hasn't been stuck solely on BBC Four for the past decade, you'll appreciate the impersonations and in-jokes without having to have been a devotee to the reality TV show.

Surprisingly the plot isn’t all about the judges. The story centres around impoverished orphaned teenager Chenice (Cynthia Erivo) who lives in a caravan under a flyover together with her iron-lung supported grandfather and talking dog, surviving on road kill. Chenice meets ukulele-playing plumber Max (Alan Morrissey) who persuades her to find fame and fortune on the TV talent show. The two fall in love as they progress through the competition together. Morrissey’s performance is a bit forgettable but Erivo’s acting and vocals are outstanding and she floored the audience with the ironically-titled song I Can’t Sing, proving the very opposite.

The songs by Steven Brown and Harry Hill are both witty and catchy, featuring a glorious pastiche of styles from reggae to rap (by the dejected hunchback monk Trevormodo), as well as a Beyonce-esque and a Motown number.   

Olivier Award-winning actor Nigel Harman puts in a brilliantly narcissistic and at times camp and creepy performance as Simon Cowell. With characteristic centre-parting, glowing white teeth and demi-god level of smugness, Harman’s Cowell is portrayed as a hedonistic playboy Bond villain. In one of the laugh-out-loud moments, Cowell gets out the back of a car as he arrives to judge the opening auditions. Realising he’s missing something, he pats his pockets appearing to check for his wallet before reaching into the back of his car to retrieve a baby carry seat. His jazz tap-dancing number, Uncomplicated Love, poking fun at Cowell’s open uncommitted attitude to love stands out as one of the most memorable of the night.

Other star performances are given by Simon Bailey, whose perfectly observed impersonation of Dermot O’Leary as the needy presenter was a hit with the audience. His song Hug With A Stranger which he sings entirely whilst in an embrace with one of the contestants is hilarious. Victoria Elliott as Jordy is also great, sending up Cheryl Cole’s catchphrases where everyone’s ‘pet’ and Chenice is like a ‘little sister’ to her.

What also sets this musical apart is the brightly-coloured surreal and ambitious set designs by Es Devlin (who was behind the designs for the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony), which clearly ate up a large portion of the reported £6 million spent on the production - lucky Cowell has deep pockets. Once you see what the production achieves on stage, then you quickly understand why the previews were delayed due to technical problems. Among the wackiest is an enormous mouth with a buzzing human-sized fly, a giant flowering staircase with a suggestive stamen and a descending UFO spaceship.

This full-on spectacle of a musical won’t be to everyone’s taste. If you are not a fan of the Monty Python-style humour of Harry Hill, you’re unlikely to enjoy this show either. Simultaneously a celebration and critique of The X-Factor; the wit, warmth and off-the-wall eccentricity definitely won me over and I’d encourage others to revel in its well-observed madness. So paraphrasing one of the judges - I didn’t like it…I loved it.

I Can’t Sing! is currently booking at the London Palladium until 25th October. Group travel organisers booking eight or more tickets are entitled to discounted rates.

Pictured: Ashley Knight (Louis), Victoria Elliott (Jordy) and Nigel Harman (Simon). Photo credit: Tristam Kenton.

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