Writers and composers:Benjamin Till and Nathan Taylor
Director: Luke Sheppard
Reviewer: Tom Finch
Can a computer write a hit musical? That’s the question asked by a Sky Arts documentary. Beyond the Fence is the product of several computer programmes that have been fed thousands of melodies, lyrics and plot devices from hit musicals and then processed in an attempt to create a brand new musical that will stand the test of time.
Some lovers of musical theatre, this one included, frequently bemoan the formulaic nature of many new shows yet it could be argued many shows do stick to a certain, predictable structure. There’s a pretty complicated graph in the programme for this show that describes it very well. Beyond the Fence purposely follows this formula to the letter. It’s frustrating that such an innovative creative process is still being hampered by an unoriginal structure.
The show itself is set in the woman’s protest camp on Greenham Common in 1982 (the 80s is the decade to set a musical if you want it to be a hit, apparently), blockading an airbase before missiles arrive. Here the group of women look after each other, squabble, make up, celebrate Christmas and generally sit around. On the other side of the fence is Jim, a US Air Force officer who forms an unlikely friendship with a young, mute girl, George, and an even unlikelier friendship with her mother, Mary.
In terms of plot, that’s about it. Nothing very much happens over two and a half hours. A small crisis at the end of Act One is solved during the interval somehow and never mentioned in Act Two. The piece is in some ways held back by sticking rigidly to a formula; there’s very little we haven’t seen here before. The ending of the show is obvious 15 minutes in. Will George ever get her voice back? A quick look at the song list in the programme answers that one. Will Mary and Jim, who seem to hate each other ever resolve their differences and fall in love with each other?
As well as containing very little plot the show also contains a group of hackneyed, stereotypical characters, of the group of women in the protest camp, there is a sweet old lady, a young horny Welsh woman, a plus-sized woman who provides the comic relief, there’s even a quiet Asian woman who helps George with her maths homework.
Luke Sheppard, as director, does his best with this show but it’s hard to drive something forward when it doesn’t have anywhere to go. The cast all work hard and give it their all but there is a sense of it’s all too little too late. Annie Wensak makes the most out of her role as the kindly matriarch Margie. Ako Mitchell creates a sympathetic character out of Jim, wounded from a tragic past. Hollie Owen, who was George on press night, gives an enchanting, largely silent performance, which is no easy task.
Beyond the Fence is an interesting experiment but it shows that computers are a long way off from creating a hit musical.
Runs until 5 March 2016 | Image: Robert Workman