Computer-Penned Musical Beyond The Fence Reviewed

Beyond The Fence, Arts Theatre ★★★☆☆

By Stuart Black Last edited 24 months ago
Computer-Penned Musical Beyond The Fence Reviewed Beyond The Fence, Arts Theatre 3
Photo by Robert Workman.

Here's an anomaly in the West End's mainframe: a musical made for Sky Arts by matching up a team of computer scientists with seasoned stage veterans to try and produce a show that has perfect songs but also genuine soul.

Beyond The Fence is an intriguing theatrical experiment posing one critical question: can we get rid of Andrew Lloyd Webber?

The answer turns out to be yes. Here, an advanced computer system programmed with algorithms that can sort and replicate the best bits from all the best show tunes of recent years has come up with 16 songs that are at least as strong as the ones you’d find in an average human-writ West End show. What’s our measure for success? Well, the audience we saw Beyond The Fence with was applauding just about every number and was brought to tears by at least two of them.

So Dr Catherine Gale, who has co-ordinated the team of boffins and also made the TV series about the experiment for Sky, can pat herself on the back — the play is indeed a crowd-pleaser.

But before everyone goes rushing to try and funnel big data into a raft of other creative products, it should be said that there is plenty to cringe at here too.

The story the computers have come up with involves a commune of feisty feminists protesting outside the RAF airbase in Greenham Common in 1982 as a shipment of nuclear missiles is due to arrive.

Mary (CJ Johnson) has a daughter George (Zaiya Omamoori) who hasn’t spoken since dad left. Meanwhile, on the other side of the barbed wire is American soldier Jim Meadow (Ako Mitchell) who lost his wife in childbirth. Will these best of enemies realise they fit together as neatly as bits of a jigsaw? Will the women put aside their differences and work together or the soldiers learn there’s more to life than duty? And will George ever speak again?

Picking through old shows for tricks evidently means the plotting is predictable and at times a bit shallow. A death is thrown in at the all-is-lost point towards the end, for example, but it fails to feel like more than a convenient device to rally the troops.

In all honesty, we were disappointed the algos had come up with such a parochially human story, rather than something about circuit boards in revolt. That said, the experience is solid enough and the computer-generated elements perfectly okay.

It's quite fun to try and spot stuff the tech has re-purposed: a bit of Chicago here, a bit of The Lion King there — quite a bit of it sounds like Meatloaf at medium throttle. It's decently directed by Luke Sheppard, while the talented ensemble do what they can with fairly flat characters and belt out the songs with gusto (and not a hint of autotune).

Of course, writers have been using formulae for years to make commercially-minded culture and so what difference does it make if it’s a formula developed by a machine? This is the main talking point of the show and one we won’t try to take on here. It’s a debate that will run and run.

Beyond The Fence runs at the Arts Theatre until 5 March. Tickets £15-£49.50 available from the box office. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 29 February 2016