Even I have to admit that the closure of Simon Cowell’s co-produced theatre show, ‘I Can’t Sing’ is not an entire surprise and may do the West End theatre world a lot of favours given it’s patchy, inconsistent and often over-the-top script, which seemed to have gotten carried away with itself. That being said there were great musical scores written by Steve Brown, exceptional singing from talented and artistic cast members particularly Cynthia Erivo, impressive dance choreographies and added showmanship on hard-to-make set designs by Es Devlin, which deserve notable credit.
Harry Hill, comedian and host of his own comedy show,‘TV Burps,’co-wrote the show with direction from West End’s, Sean Foley, which may sound like a fitting pair to create something innovative given how successful they have been in their individual professions, yet attempting to translate the X-factor, a Saturday night TV programme with over millions of viewers which has a bitter sweet and sour reaction from the general public based on its odd contestants and frequently ridiculed judges, onto a large scale, £6 million worth, West End stage only riles theatre critics more by putting a question mark over it’s credibility as a stage show and over-worked marketing strategies which took place months before the show came out. Cowell even devoted time on TV such as the Royal Variety Show to promote it. Circumstances like these ask for an early retirement, which was precisely the case yesterday (May 10th) after running as short as 2 months at London’s Palladium. There are possibly several factors that have led to the shows demise, which should caution anyone thinking about bringing theatre to the West End.
The plot is based on Chenice’s (Erivo) struggle and strife of a journey to X-factor fame. Accompanied by her crude dog, Barlow (Simon Lipkin,) she falls in love with ukulele player and plumber, Max, (Alan Morrissey,) which puts their relationship on a standstill having to deal with the unglamourous complications of show business. This, alongside the death of her grand father who lives off an electrically supported lung and the demolition of her caravan, is left penniless which gives her a head start in the competition with an X-factor necessity – ‘a back story.’
Unfortunately, the show isn’t as simple as this as there are multiple plots, sub-plots and tertiary plots that detract from the main story. There are bizarre and random parts of the show, which reveal a lack of consideration or planning at its preliminary creative stages to keep the story line fluid. These weird parts include the show ending with Cowell as an alien that the audience sees off in a spaceship, one of the contestants singing dressed as a Valkyrie figure, presence of leprechuans and everything Irish cheering on the band, Alter Boyz (Shaun Smith and Rowen Hawkins,) Trevor Modo (Charlie Baker,) as the modern day Quasimodo and wannabe Eminen style rapper, the rise of an air pumped phallic lily to the song, ‘Uncomplicated love,’ and other dragged out choruses, which the show could have done without. This frequently left the audience confused and losing track of where they were in the show.
Critics have argued that the show was a narcissistic project of Cowell’s even if it depicted him in a satirical way. He is played by Eastender actor, Nigel Harman, who sings, ‘I am the Patron Saint of Fame,’ having entered from the sky like a statuesque messiah. Knowingly, and as condoned by Cowell himself, Harman recreates an impression of Cowell in every possible stereotype the media have described him; diva, little-man-syndrome, insecure, arrogant and lonely bachelor. Silly but noteworthy acting stems from various actors including a performance artist playing a dramatisation of the wind, Polish contestant, Vladimir (Steven Serlin,) Camp TV producer, Billy Carter who showed off his tap dancing skills and Brenda (Katy Secombe,) the check out assistant.
Staff, stage and crew were said to make deliberate and slight changes to the show given it was the grand finale which were presented through brief references and adlibbed lines by Lipkin and Chenice’s grandfather (Joe Speare) who just before the standing elevation (to which I reluctantly took part in,) hung down as an angel and said the words, ‘God loves this show but even he could not make it run.’
Despite the glitz and glamour, most of the mumbling and pointed jokes that came out of Lipkin’s puppet dog were crass and debasing. Some members of the audience were unsure whether to laugh considering there were children present and some lines seemed off-the-cuff and plainly politically incorrect. It goes to show an error on Hill and Foley’s part on not identifying the discrepancy of who they should have targeted their audience at and dealing with the repercussions of a non-sell-out show because of the lack of consistent writing. Hill is a comedian and with respect to this, the show will undoubtedly be humorous but one has to ensure the jokes are in line with the correct audience, not as degrading as Jordy’s bottom tattoo.
Concerns of the ticket sales could have stemmed from the miscorrelation between X-factor’s target audience of 7 million sofa viewers and those willing to pay for a theatre ticket that are worth up to £80 per seat. It seems that the realistic figures were not bought up earlier on, which even Cowell admits, “We took a punt and it didn’t work out. If I could do things different, I would have gone to local theatres and built up a following…’
The TV show that founded artists like One Direction and Leona Lewis is watched by a larger number than those willing to fork out the cash to see it in the West End, especially one which glorifies and gratifies Cowell, a celebrity with a mixed reception. Yet, there is one thing worth pointing out which no one has interestingly picked up. Over the course of a decade, or ever since Cowell started judging on TV programmes including Pop Idol, American Idol and Britain’s Got Talent, how many contestants has he rejected? These could have been possible theatregoers or perhaps due to his uncompromising, blasé and rash critiques of their performances developed a large hate group. The calculations potentially go beyond the thousands if we are considering contestants outside the UK as well.
From the failure of ‘I Can’t Sing’, we have to succumb to the fact that no matter how extravagant the budget, how grand the hype, and popularity of the TV show or its celebrities, it is not a formula for success in the West End. However, let’s not forget that not all theatre critics gave the show a 4 star or 5 star rating at its debut which may be why it was not only the misguided target market or its subjects that was a recipe for disaster yet the perception of the show in its entirety which hastened its closure.