Beyond The Fence

Seemingly wanting to be judged as the output of an experiment rather than a ‘proper show’, Beyond The Fence is the result of Sky Arts TV documentary Computer Says Show, which sets out to ask whether, in today's data-heavy world – where we flip between the convenience and the paranoia created by a plethora of loyalty schemes, spyware, and the likes of Google and Apple owning all our data in an attempt to 'own' us – can computers use data to evaluate the successes and failures of 1,700 previous shows to finally find the formula to a great musical? Judging by this painfully cliché-ridden show, Lloyd Webber, Sondheim and the like can sleep easy for the answer is a resolute no.

An interesting experiment for a TV show to promote Sky Arts as a channel that has proved we aren't quite ready for computer-generated entertainment yet.

To be clear, there are also people involved in this creative process (not just computers) – namely Benjamin Till and Nathan Taylor (who turned their wedding into Channel 4's Our Gay Wedding: The Musical a few years ago). They – along with producer Neil Laidlaw and Luke Shepherd directing – had the challenging task of taking the lyrics, tunes, plot themes and emotional highs and lows that the many computer programs spat out as keys to success, and adding a human, emotional and common sense element to it. So the decision to set this story of problem-ridden characters facing love and loss (zzzzzz) in the recent history of the women who protested for years outside Greenham Common during the early 80s, was ultimately theirs. An interesting decision as this seems a potentially dramatic theme that has been rarely explored in the theatre. But where Miss Saigon and Les Mis brought important times in history to a young audience by using music, little knowledge of the time is at hand here – simply sprinkled over the top with the same lack of depth as the storyline, lyrics and characterisations.

The characters for what they are worth are straight from a book of clichés (or a computer) – the abused woman with a mute daughter and a heart of gold; the foster home runaway; the one with the secret illness; the pensioner dissatisfied with her empty nest existence. Indeed when the main, all-female protagonists of the show sing the first of many overlong, "song-rhymes-by-ABC", you could be forgiven for thinking it is the cast of a right-on politically correct Benetton ad, covering as many ages, races and gender biases as possible. They're so obvious as to obliterate any depth or care we may have and the enjoyment to be had here is to play ‘Musical Bingo’, awarding yourself points for spotting in advance every stereotyped character arc, every clunky obvious rhyme, every back story and every fate that is going to befall them. (Believe me, it's a very easy and high-scoring game.) Throw in a kid for the audience to ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ at (because she's so young and doesn't speak, rather than having any believability) and you can't help but cringe as the obvious awkwardness unfolds – always a few steps behind where you already knew it was going.

There are rare enjoyable moments but very rare and mainly down to the performances of two of the actors. It's to the credit of Annie Wensak (as Maggie – the 'older woman in need of a maternal purpose' cliché) and Laura Jane Matthewson (the 'least preferred child with weight issues' cliché, Helen) that both manage to find some truth from somewhere to make their issue-driven character roles engaging, amusing and involving, when it's difficult to care about the rest. Their solos (everyone has a 'tick-box' solo) are the absolute highlights – particularly Matthewson who manages to create pathos through the roller-skating based song Graceful and gets what seems to be the most genuine applause of the night with a performance that is resonant of Victoria Wood's play on word delivery with Julie Walter's comic timing. It's interesting to note that Graceful is the song that had the fewest lyrics delivered by the computers (only 6%).

But it would be wrong to blame the ‘experiment’ for all of this. In the first episode of the TV series, Laidlaw said that "If the show's ghastly, it's not really my fault". Well perhaps not his alone, but I don't think that you can just blame the computers here. The 16 songs account for more of the show than spoken dialogue and their obvious rhyming and structure are what makes this so awkward to watch – so do we blame the algorithms? According to the data output, three-quarters of the songs seemed to have less than 10% input from the computers so that would imply that the responsibility for the majority of what we hear lies with the human input...

All this creates a weak build-up to the "emotionally uplifting finale" that I found excruciatingly embarrassing to watch – with the obvious lyrics, weak singing and the tearful responses from the cast seeming a masterclass in how to make yourself cry on stage when there is no emotion to be gleaned from the action. To be fair, some around me seemed moved to tears – but I can't say how many of those moved were friends and family in this press night. It seems the result of aggregating so much data gives you all the clichés of a successful show joined up together – where other shows may include cliché that you forgive if they are seldom, here the clichés are the bones around which there is no meat. It's easy to put this down to an interesting experiment for a TV show to promote Sky Arts as a channel that has proved we aren't quite ready for computer-generated entertainment yet, but that may be a bit too easy – a creative team should have much more finesse than to simply dust a badly made cake with an out-of-date icing.

Reviews by Simon Ximenez


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The Blurb

Beyond the Fence marks a new dawn in the evolution of musical theatre – the first show in the world conceived and substantially crafted by computer!

Modelled on a statistical study of the 'recipe for success' in hit musicals, this unique experimental show has been created in collaboration with leading experts in music, computation and the science of human creativity, along with composer Benjamin Till and his husband, writer and actor Nathan Taylor, the award winning team behind ‘Our Gay Wedding: The Musical’ (Channel 4). Director Luke Sheppard will bring a whole range of computer-generated material to life with a talented human cast performing this emotionally powerful and exciting West End show.

Beyond the Fence is a powerful new musical about hope, defiance, unity and love. Set in September 1982, it tells the story of Mary and her daughter George who are celebrating one year of living at the Greenham Common peace camp. The group of women they have joined are all committed to stopping the arrival of US cruise missiles through non-violent protest. When Mary is faced with losing her child to the authorities, an unlikely ally is found in US Airman Jim Meadow. How can she continue to do what is best for her daughter while staying true to her ideals?


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