HOWL, HOWL, HOWL! IT’S COWELL MOST FOUL…
Only gossip-writers should review the audience, but seeing this was the gala premiere of Harry Hill’s X-factor musical , and that most of the national critics wussily sneaked into previews to write it up nice and early, I may as well supplement the critical consensus. So know that on this real opening night Simon Cowell himself preeened through a curtain call next to Nigel Harman who plays him, that the audience was chock-full of showbizzy figures being spoofed onstage, from Sinitta to Louis Walsh; and that my companion had the interval pleasure of seeing half of the boy-band Union J confusedly blundering into the Ladies’.
And so to the show. Its eccentric brio owes more than a little to Jerry Springer The Opera, and demonstrates also, alas, how much better that other TV-talent musical -Viva Forever – would have been if with some proper work and wit in it. It is built round auditions and backstage manoeuvres on The X Factor, so if you know nothing of ITV’s monolithic, hideously successful, exploitative and terminally naff rhinestone-in-the-crown, don’t bother. Equally, if the football-related backstory of Cheryl Cole and the lovelife and health regimes of Cowell himself are beyond your range of interests, do some homework. But if you are a fan or the parent of one, or one of the viewers neatly guyed in a chorus sung on flying sofas (“It’s all a con, I don’t really watch it , there’s nothing else on..”) then Sean Foley’s production is the spectacular, larking, hoofing, happily silly springtime panto for you. Especially if you love the knowingly parastic mockery of TV which is Harry Hill’s trademark.
I love Hill, and my notebook is peppered with “HH” symbols to identify jokes which reminded me of him. Like the aria about the importance of loving yourself if you’re in showbiz, or the hopeful trio with T shirts of their name SOUL STAR who stand in the wrong order and read ARS OUL ST. Or the compere Liam O’Dearie (plainly Dermot O’Leary) who sings that how he never feels secure unless he is hugging someone he doesn’t know. Ouch. Another lovely Harry-Hillism is having the wind which blows away vital entry forms played by an ensemble member flapping his rags and snarling “three years at RADA!”.
There are some proper musical-theatre treats. Cynthia Erivo, last seen taking the roof off the Menier in The Color Purple, is the heroine Chenice, who thinks she can’t sing but brilliantly can: she has an ideal X-factor harrowing backstory which Hill treats with cheerful callousness. Grandad’s iron lung has to be unplugged to watch telly in their caravan, and he gets electrocuted by an incompetent plumber who is himself a contestant (“I’m going to change the world with my ukelele, and I’m doing it for my little brother!”). There’s a cynical puppet dog snarling “I know it’s not exactly War Horse but I’m doing my best”, a Dickensian undertaker, a hunchback rapper with breakdancing monks, leprechauns, Brunnhildes, and Harman a superbly horrible Cowell.
That’s it, really. There is potential savagery in a few lyrics, like Cowell’s “I will search the land for every buffoon / mentally ill people who murder a tune..”. The Cole character (a glorious Victoria Elliott) is mercilessly made a clumsy exhibitionist colluding in the cynical manipulation of innocents, and the conclusion is a song made entirely of clichés “Dream of a journey, journey to the dream..”. But hell, Cowell himself is the show’s backer, for Syco. And like Have I Got News or American comedy “roastings” it is all basically self-congratulatory – a sort of triumphalist “if you’re ghastly and you know it, clap your hands!” But God help me, I enjoyed it a lot.
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Rating: four. Oh dear.