In front of a glamorous first night audience graced with the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Simon Cowell himself, Gok Wan, Sinitta, Cilla Black and of course Christopher Biggins (no theatre first night is complete without him) the joyous satire on The X Factor – and reality TV shows in general – finally opened at the London Palladium last night.
If you don’t like Harry Hill’s distinctive brand of humour, then this might not be for you. But if you are a fan of madcap, juvenile satirical silliness (as I am) then it’s a joy. But for those expecting a coruscating attack on Cowell and reality TV, well, let’s just say this lavish show, bedecked with high production values and even higher hopes to be a smash hit, stays very firmly on the gentle and respectful side.
Little wonder, one supposes. The real Cowell is investing in this. And songs delivered by his character – played with understated brio and panache by Nigel Harman – such as I’m Fabulous hardly insult him. Nor does the description by Billy Carter’s hilariously camp Cowell assistant Gerrard Smalls that he can make women pregnant by looking at them.
When the curtain came down, the real Cowell made a predictable entrance on stage, bowing and saying how fantastic it all was. “I really am fabulous,” he joked. Or rather said. He clearly believes it.
Yes, this Cowell is the “patron saint of fame”, intent on global success from the moment we see him as a school boy living in Waistband Way to the mega star we all now know and love. It was smart (typically smart I think we can now safely say of the mega rich music mogul) of him to be in on the joke.
But the real focus of this musical is a rather more conventional love story. Chenice (Cynthia Erivo) is living in a caravan with her dog Barlow (geddit?) and grouchy granddad (Joe Speare) who is on an iron lung. When grandpa dies in genuinely hilarious circumstances (remember, this is Harry Hill) his ghost implores Chenice to compete on X Factor and use the tragic back story to end all tragic X Factor back stories to win through.
Of course Chenice has to compete with all sorts of people to win the day. There’s a brilliant Jedward spoof called The Altar Boys, a Wagner lookalike, a medieval Hunchback (Charlie Baker) intent on revenge (yes, remember that it is Harry Hill behind this again), a ghastly threesome called Soul Stars and of course Alan Morrissey’s Max. Ah Max, sweet lovely Max with his tiny guitar, his dreams of being more than just a plumber and, of course, his puppy love for Chenice. Will true love win the day? Will talent out? Do I really need to answer that?
Chenice is aided of course by her dog and in many ways puppeteer Simon Lipkin steals the show with his sardonic asides handling the caustic mutt.
Along the way there are some pretty good numbers – this shows has had some stick in previews and people who have seen earlier performances assured me last night that it has got much tighter and slicker. The pick of them is probably the title song, delivered with full-throated dazzle by Erivo.
Liam O’Deary (Simon Bailey) captures a certain X Factor compere’s delivery, mocking his shouty style and also his need to constantly hug people. The real Dermot wouldn’t be too troubled by the mickey take.
Louis Walsh may have a sight problem with his portrayal as a doddery has been and the Cheryl Cole character – Victoria Elliott’s Jordy – is a very broad (and not uncruel) spoof, but one which hones in rather cleverly on her persistent need to call aspiring contestants her little sister. I doubt the real Geordie lass will be doing that again when she returns to the real X Factor.
All in all, I enjoyed this. It’s a four-and-a-half stars out of five effort, it really is. Yes, the denominator is set quite low, and new musicals always have a hard job of breaking through in the West End so its success is far from guaranteed. But this one just might. It does have a certain, you know, X Factor.
Ben has worked as a professional journalist specialising in TV and the arts for nearly twenty years. After a two year stint on local newspapers in the mid 1990s, he spent more than 5 years as the broadcast reporter at the Stage newspaper. Following that he enjoyed staff reporting positions at the Sunday Mirror and the Sunday Times breaking stories and writing features before settling as a full time freelance writing for an array of newspapers and magazines - but mainly for the Guardian, Evening Standard, Broadcast, Independent and the New Statesman where he wrote a column.