“It’s a no, it’s a yes, it’s a no from me”
One of the most profitable television franchises in the UK, a much-loved comedian writing the book, a £6 million budget…there’s clearly considerable heft behind the latest musical to establish itself in the London Palladium. But the marriage of Harry Hill’s bizarre comic sensibility, Steve Brown’s bright if hollow score and the ITV juggernaut that is the X-Factor makes for uneasy bedfellows, Sean Foley’s garish production eschewing any kind of subtlety for the broadest kind of populist swoop.
I Can’t Sing is a show that constantly wants to have its cake and eat it. Faux-Dermot presenter Liam O’Deary gets a laugh by exasperating at one point “I don’t know why you might be charged” when the phone lines have closed, presumably the response “because they continue to make money for the production company” was mixed in previews. The TV show’s heavy reliance on tear-jerking backstories is a running gag yet nothing dispels the myth that that is the way to get noticed on a talent show. Likewise the qualifications of the panel to be judges of a popular music contest are skewered yet they remain feted as a special brand of celebrity.
Steve Brown’s score occupies similar territory. For a TV show that relies on churning out covers of the same old songs every year, the choice to go with pastiche for the music here is a brave one. There’s an Eminem rap, a Beyoncé ballad, Europop trash, a disco diva moment, a Rat Pack number, but precious few moments of genuine musical theatre. The title song has vocal fireworks but no soul, the number constructed solely out of clichés lacks real wit beyond the concept, only the Act 1 closer has the driving force of a full company number that befits the budget that has been bestowed upon this production.
Contemporary references are scattered throughout but rather than making the show feel up to date, they feel painfully, calculatedly studious. Benefits Street, Embarrassing Bodies, selfies, onesies, babies (Cowell’s), even the show’s well-publicised troubles in its preview period all get a cursory look-in, feeling like they’re being ticked off a list rather than fully integrated into the book. When it does achieve that, as in the cringing ‘I Miss You Already”, the bubbles of text speak that appear on the wall feel like your dad’s version of how the kids speak. Hill’s surreal sense of humour somehow feels hemmed in here, missing the mark more often than hitting it.
Simon Bailey’s Dermot impression is brilliantly well-observed yet he’s not given enough to say that is actually funny, Victoria Elliot’s Cheryl-a-like Jordy has a great joke involving the word ‘pet’, and Nigel Harman’s legs are put to good use as a silky Simon. But forced to avoid an impersonation – Cowell’s presence as producer can’t have helped – it’s never quite silly enough, given how daftly the show ends, why doesn’t a look from him actually make people instantly pregnant? Throw in a security guard who is funny because he has a Nigerian accent and a camp producer who is funny because he’s gay, and one gets a sense at which denominator we’re operating.
In the midst of all of this, the story of X-Factor hopefuls Chenice (dead grandfather, lives in a condemned caravan) and Max (ill baby brother, is a rubbish plumber) and their budding romance is almost an afterthought. It is partially rescued by a stellar vocal performance from Cynthia Erivo, acres of charm from Alan Morrissey and a highly personable turn from Simon Lipkin as a talking dog who is a little too self-aware for his own good – “I mean it’s no War Horse but I’m trying…”. And this conflict is symptomatic of the show itself, caught awkwardly between surreal eccentricity and X-Factor promo – light entertainment with a leaden weight.