I accidentally found myself at the premiere of I Can’t Sing after being given a couple of tickets for what I thought was a preview. Woefully scruffy and underdressed, I stumbled late into a gaggle of paparazzi outside the London Palladium – I thought they were taking pictures of me but it was just Terry Wogan. After being herded into the theatre I pushed my way through Carol Vorderman having a natter with Gok Wan and Jimmy Carr. I sat down, Simon Cowell took his seat two rows behind me and the long-awaited spectacle, reportedly plagued by technical problems and very hotly anticipated by the theatre cognoscenti, began.
I Can’t Sing is three things: a well-observed pastiche of big West End musicals and their tropes, an affectionate parody of the X Factor, and a big old pantomime. The characters are over the top and grotesque, every other line is bookended by a wink or aside to the audience, it has really good goodies and really bad baddies, and there is a simple plot: attractive plumber boy and attractive poor girl fall in love and both audition for the X Factor. It’s simple, but plot isn’t really the point. The point is to simultaneously mock and celebrate the X Factor. And, of course, to put a bit more money into Simon Cowell’s pockets.
But it is consistently funny, and full of accurate observations about the X Factor: pitiable back story, stupid costumes, characters like Brenda the checkout assistant, Vladimir the crazy foreign one, Altarboyz the saccharine Irish twins. It pulls no punches in mocking Simon Cowell, Louis Walsh (who were both in the audience) and Cheryl Cole – or rather Jordy, as she’s called in the musical, the attractive judge with a thick South Shields accent.
Flying sofas, aliens and a character playing ‘the wind’ mean that it frequently takes sudden lurches into the absurdist realm that is a mark of Harry Hill’s humour. In fact, it is possible to hear Hill’s familiar voice in so many of the lines and lyrics – particularly in the puppet dog Barlow (ex Avenue Q puppeteer Simon Lipkin) whom only the audience can hear and who provides a commentary on proceedings in the vein of TV Burp. But sometimes the humour does not punch any higher than sixth form revue silliness, which jars with the colossal glitz and budget that are evident in the show.
The huge, 36 member cast performs incredibly tightly, and there is not a foot wrong in any of the big MGM-musical-style dance scenes choreographed by Kate Prince. On top of that, and useful for a musical, they can all sing bloody well – especially Cynthia Erivo as protagonist Chenice. Her spectacular performance during the title song I Can’t Sing is doubly ironic: not only is her voice phenomenal, but usually X Factor stars (or singers from reality talent shows) go on to be in West End musicals; here we have a singer in a West End musical pretending to be in the X Factor. The stand out cast member is certainly Simon Bailey as Liam O’Deary. He captures the mannerisms, the lazy swagger, the vocal inflections of Dermot O’Leary so precisely and always raises a big laugh with his controlled and accurate performance.
Almost every song by Steve Brown (the amazing Glen Ponder in Knowing Me Knowing You) is a huge chorus number, and almost every member of the cast is either flying or negotiating a huge rotating set at some point or another – it is little wonder that there were technical difficulties in previews, and remarkable that it all works even now. None of the songs is a particular earworm and they all have the slightly false, transient and ersatz quality of the songs that X Factor contestants sing, but they do the job.
During one song the set became a hall of mirrors, allowing me and the rest of the audience a moment of reflection (I see what I did there). Some (the celebrities) were laughing, some (probably the critics) were impassive. There’s a feeling of indulgence, of guilty pleasure that accompanies watching big West End musicals: we enjoy Mamma Mia and Wicked because they prey in a superficial way on basic emotions: happiness, sadness. I Can’t Sing doesn’t have the deeply intelligent, surprisingly subtle and satirical bite of Book of Mormon but it allows you to acquiesce in those indulgent simple emotions and at the same time become aware of how ridiculous they are – 36 people on stage singing and dancing in unison is powerful, and even more so when it’s making you laugh too.
It’s a big, silly, funny, colourful spectacle, not groundbreaking – musicals have been parodied before (Mormon), X Factor has been parodied before but it is enjoyable. It’s also one giant in-joke-circle-jerk, relying on the fact that its audiences will have seen the X Factor whether they admit it or not. If you’re one of those people who bought Rage Against The Machine to try to beat the Joe McElderry’s Christmas No.1 then there is nothing for you here. But everyone else, particularly Simon Cowell, will certainly get a lot out of it.
I Can’t Sing is on at the London Palladium. Book here.