I Can’t Sing! – London Palladium

Cynthia Erivo and Alan Morrissey in I Can’t Sing at the London Palladium. Picture: Roy Tan

Touching – Cynthia Erivo and Alan Morrissey in I Can’t Sing! at the London Palladium. Picture: Roy Tan

I Can’t Sing! continues at the London Palladium.

Unless you have been living in a bubble for the last ten years then you can’t fail to have noticed the strangle-hold that Simon Cowell has over the entertainment industry. Depending on how you rate him, he has either killed or cured Saturday night television with the reinvention of the humble talent show format. The X Factor has not only added to Cowell’s considerable fortune as a music producer, it has made him a global phenomenon as the uncompromising face of the celebrity judging panel. Having conquered the world of music and television, the entrepreneur now turns his hand to the biggest risk of all with I Can’t Sing! – musical theatre.

It’s not the first time that Cowell has dipped his toe into the genre as he was in fact executive producer on You’re The One That I Want. ITV’s search for a star for a revival of Grease was panned by the critics, and Cowell dropped the concept after one series. Today he is an above-the-line producer on a major West End musical comedy that ruthlessly parodies his own life and career, while sending out an important message on the ‘price of fame’ and the need to stay grounded on the road to superstardom.

I Can’t Sing! tells the story of Chenice, an orphan who has lived her poverty stricken life completely unaware of The X Factor, caring for her grandfather whose iron lung interfered with the TV reception. Shortly after his death, she is persuaded to join the competition and soon rises to become a favourite to win the million pound recording contract and the chance for international superstardom.

Written by Harry Hill, the story is infused with the television comedian’s trademark surrealist style. If you are not familiar with Hill’s world, then it may all just appear a little too peculiar as it verges occasionally on pantomime. It is supported by Steve Brown’s original score, which features a selection of excellent and thankfully diverse musical numbers that both inform the narrative and entertain – a simple task that has been woefully lacking in the West End for a while now.

Bringing the concept and characters to life, director Sean Foley pulls out all the stops creating something akin to a hybrid of The Producers and The Book of Mormon both in style and content. Es Devlin’s set design features some outrageous flights of fancy that complement the sheer scale of the show.

Nigel Harman is faced with the daunting task of playing Simon Cowell on stage. Rumours that the writers had been easy on Cowell are simply not true and the actor hams up the role with evident glee. Replete with high-waisted trousers, Hollywood smile and trademark aviators, Harman’s Cowell believes in his own publicity and camps it up no end, surrounded by showgirls, adoring fans and grovelling minions. On a slightly obscure note, I can’t be the first reviewer to have noticed that Harman appears once again in a West End show with a set of fake legs.

On the judging panel, Louis is played by Ashley Knight as a doddery old fool and Victoria Elliott is in danger of stealing the limelight as Jordy, a ruthless take on the lovely Cheryl Cole but she’s worth it. Simon Bailey as Liam O’Dreary slithers his way through the show in an equally cut-throat, though somehow less affectionate parody of Dermot O’Leary.

Katy Secombe as Brenda and Charlie Baker as the Hunchback represent the eclectic mix of contestants lined up to audition for The X Factor, led by Alan Morrissey, whose simple charm as plumber Max endears him both to the audience and naturally to the leading lady Chenice. Simon Lipkin – one of the original cast of Avenue Q – once again takes up the puppeteer’s role as Chenice’s talking dog Barlow. Something of a commentator on the plot, Lipkin’s delivery as bulldog Barlow is remarkably reminiscent of Harry Hill’s own voiceovers on You’ve Been Framed.

Undoubtedly the star of this show is the hugely talented Cynthia Erivo, who plays the unassuming Chenice. A gift to London’s musical theatre stage, Erivo’s touching performance hits all the right notes emotionally while her vocal theatrics raise the roof. The musical number ‘I Can’t Sing’ may be this musical’s ear-worm but there is absolutely no reason why her finale ‘I’m in Ecstasy’ – where she out-booty’s Beyonce – could not have a general release.

The marriage of Hill’s comedy and Brown’s score might well be a hit but the difficulty sits with the book itself, which attempts to parody a television show that has long been a parody of itself anyway.

If you have been happily living in that bubble where The X Factor is not part of your life, you will find it difficult to actually care about any of the characters, let alone understand the constant satirising of its presenters, format and conventions. However, if for half the year your Saturday evenings are spent glued to the TV in awe of the competition afoot, then you may feel slightly disappointed at how mercilessly you are lampooned on stage.

Falling somewhere between the two, I Can’t Sing! may well struggle to find an audience, which is a shame as original musicals are few and far between and Brown’s score has so much that is worthy of success.

Paul Vale


Readers may also be interested in:

I Can’t Sing! – the X Factor musical – a sneak peek – News


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