Is I Can’t Sing just an exploitative X Factor cash-in?
You probably already know the answer to that, just as you probably already know the plot (or should I say ‘journey’?). Penned by Harry Hill and narrated in voiceover by Peter ‘Voice of the X Factor’ Dickson, the first act introduces us to Chenice (Cynthia Erivo) and her pet dog Barlow (a puppet performed Avenue Q style by Simon Lipkin) – a potential contestant for the show with the sort of ridiculous sob story background that has become notorious in reality, involving a dead grandfather with an iron lung. The second act takes place in the main competition, focusing on the three judges – Simon Cowell (Nigel Harman), ‘Jordy’ (Victoria Elliott) and Louis (Ashley Knight) – and their attempts to thwart Chenice’s blossoming relationship with fellow contestant Max (Alan Morrissey) for the sakes of good television. It was never going to be West Side Story was it?
It is for all intents and purposes a pantomime, parodying not only the X Factor but musicals (there’s a Les Mis moment, of course) and wider popular culture. The problem is that it’s too hit and miss. There are undoubtedly some hilarious moments – most of which occur in the first half – involving numerous references to past contestants like Jedward and Wagner (but no Steve Brookstein!) and Simon's right-hand woman Sinitta. The opening number sees a young Simon (Finlay Banks) foreshadowing his own fame. A character called ‘Wind’ literally represents the wind in hilarious fashion. Yet there’s also an awful glitzy number involving a Tesco Mary spoof. There’s a rapping hunchbank accompanied by break-dancing monks. There's an Irish number that's frighteningly green. And there’s that giant mouth from the poster that appears for all of a minute purely so that a man in a fly suit can hump the tongue before squealing with glee “there are no small parts”. Don’t even get me started on the utter absurdity of the twist ending.
You can’t knock the extravagance of the set, but it’s a thin veil for the shallow plot, minimal characterisation and childish dialogue that relies too heavily on cheap gags and crude humour. There’s clearly a tonne of money behind I Can’t Sing, but with Simon Cowell himself as a producer, the show sways from satire to reverence and is never quite as biting as you’d hope. The (gladly original) music from Steve Brown is happy to settle on pastiche and, although catchy, doesn't ‘smash it out of the park’, whilst his lyrics include dreadful lines like “I thought a quaver was a cheese-based snack”. As Jordy notes “we’re X Factor judges, what do we know about music?”. Or musicals for that matter.
The performances vary from impersonation to parody, each one-joke character flogged for all their worth. Again, they’re hit and miss. Lipkin’s Barlow is given some amusing one liners (“it’s not exactly War Horse”) and Simon Bailey’s send-up of Dermot O’Leary (Liam O’Deary) is pitch perfect down to the tiniest mannerisms - I was sat behind O’Leary’s family who were literally in tears. Erivo offers some incredible vocals as the naïve Chenice (really a young Whitney or Beyoncé in all but character – so essentially Alexandra Burke), despite performing opposite a limp and bloodless Morrissey as Max (a.k.a Matt Cardle). The ensemble, meanwhile, are hilarious, playing anything from appallingly bad contestants to viewers sat in onesies shovelling popcorn into their faces and even a Wagnerian opera singer (Brunhilde – Alex Young).
It’s the judges who disappoint the most. Knight’s bumbling old Louis consists of one joke, literally wheeled onto the stage. Cheryl Cole is the subject of ridicule in Elliott’s Jordy: over-sexualised, self-adoring and even kissing a statue of Ashley Cole, all with a sketchy Geordie accent. Harman’s Simon, though, is surprisingly bland despite his crooning vocals. His is the only character that shies away from impersonation, instead playing a camp music mogul too similar to his role in Shrek: The Musical (complete with fake leg joke – twice). That he descends godlike from the theatre rafters before tap dancing a number singing “I’m fabulous” complete with a flowering stamen erection tells you all you should know about this ode to Cowell's megalomania.
There’s no doubt that I Can’t Sing is a hilarious, entertaining, silly yet fun night at the theatre that will have you laughing and cringing in equal measure at both the funny jokes, the non-funny jokes and the sheer audacity and bombast of the production. It’s also a show with a shelf-life – the jokes will soon be tired and dated, so see it soon whilst it lasts.
Watch: I Can’t Sing is booking until October 2014.