I Can’t Sing!: a pitch-perfect flop

Christian Butler

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There has been a bonanza of flops in the West End over the past year, and the biggest of them all met its untimely end last week: I Can’t Sing! The X Factor Musical closed after just six weeks.

The show was not from the school of strained seriousness that besotted the librettos of other recent flops From Here to Eternity and Stephen Ward. No, it was born of the ‘fun night out’ approach to musical theatre. Sadly, it’s been a bad 12 months for this supposedly tourist-friendly strain of West End fare, what with the demise of the universally panned Spice Girls jukebox musical, Viva Forever.

Both Viva Forever and I Can’t Sing! satirise TV talent shows and were written by a star of TV comedy – Jennifer Saunders penning Viva Forever, Harry Hill I Can’t Sing!. The major difference between these two failures was the theatres they were staged in. Viva Forever died a death at the modestly sized Piccadilly Theatre, while I Can’t Sing! had the gargantuan task of filling the London Palladium; the second biggest theatre in the West End and a thousand seats bigger than the home of the Spice Girls disaster.

The foolishly ambitious decision to present the show at this cavernous theatre, matched with its extravagant £6million budget, proved to be I Can’t Sing!’s undoing. But was it any good? Tempted by its slashed ticket prices, I went to one of the show’s last ever performances.

Much to my surprise, there is a finely crafted comedy musical beneath all the glittery spectacle. Harry Hill’s book and Steve Brown’s score could have been a lazy rehash of the TV show’s infinite clichés, but both of the writers made a superb job of building on the show’s formula with stunning variety and imagination.

All the characters are imbued with a delicious shallowness that directly plays to the audience. It feels like being at a pantomime, with everyone excitedly wondering what the next twist on an old story will be.

Of all the flops I’ve seen this year, this was by far the best. Unlike the painful silences that followed the gags in Viva Forever, the audience was in hysterics throughout. And where Stephen Ward failed to satisfy its more sophisticated target audience, I Can’t Sing! ticked all the right boxes – a broad comedy that even a snob like myself could enjoy.

Though it didn’t break the mould, or break the bank for that matter, I Can’t Sing! was a fine night at the theatre. If only all flops could be this good.

Christian Butler is a writer and musician based in London.

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