The best story creations begin with a ‘what if’”, and it’s no different with musicals. What if a boy in a striking mining town develops a talent for ballet? What if a man steals a loaf of bread, and is hunted down for the rest of his life? What if the men behind ABBA want a few more million quid in their bank account by exploiting their back catalogue?
What if that ‘what if’ were decided by computer? And more than that, what if computer algorithms also determined the most likely setting for that musical for commercial success, created the plot of the musical – even scored and wrote the lyrics?
Crazy as it may sound, that is what has happened with Beyond the Fence, a new musical of cyborg parentage, with humans taking the output from various computer systems and helping shape it into a finished, full-length musical. And weirdly, it kind of works – the resulting musical is far from the worst thing to ever grace the West End, and at times is extremely engaging in ways that bigger, human-only creative teams could only dream of. But, and this is no real surprise, at other times it also feels highly derivative and contrived.
Curated by Benjamin Till and Nathan Taylor, the couple who turned their marriage (one of the first under the new equality legislation) into Channel 4’s Our Gay Wedding: The Musical, oddly their biggest misstep is neglecting the computer-generated ‘what if’.
‘What if a wounded soldier had to learn how to understand a child in order to find true love?’ was generated by WHIM, the ‘What If Machine’. And in tribute, Ako Mitchell’s US soldier Jim rubs his thigh in pain occasionally – less wounded soldier, more bloke who should have done a few more warm-ups before exercising. There’s an emotional need for him that is implied in WHIM’s question that is not addressed here, leaving the show’s central love story to feel a little anaemic.
The rest of the story is also suggested by computer. After one process suggested a 1980s setting (and we’ll leave aside the flaws in statistical reasoning behind that decision for another day), the creative team settled on the women’s camps around Greenham Common as the precinct, and another piece of software constructed the plot.
Now, working a story around a story progression template is no bad thing – certainly, movie screenplays that have adhered to a very rigid three-act structure have been revered for decades after their release and have shelves groaning with awards. However, here the structure is a little too obvious, plot taking too high a place over story and character. No matter how meticulously contrived, Character A’s reveal of a vital piece of backstory to Character B, either in dialogue or through a revealing song, needs to feel like it happens in a moment that springs from the people and situations on stage. Here, the puppet masters’ digital strings are still a little too visible.
Musically, the songs – again composed by algorithms studying composition style, and with a lyrics engine that prefers rhyme over reason – are never going to set the world alight. The ones that work are those, such as the protest song ‘We Are Greenham’, that feel rooted in character. Others that occur because the plot structure suggests one is needed at a specific moment work less well.
But again, this is far from the only show to be written to formula, and at least here that has been done as part of an attempt at a genuinely creative endeavour rather than a cynically materialistic one. And what computers cannot yet provide is the skill of a good director, casting director and (most importantly) actors bringing their humanity to a project. And this is where Beyond the Fence really does begin to shine. Luke Sheppard directs an ensemble of women that gels together extraordinarily well, with Laura Jane Matthewson, CJ Johnson and Rebecca Brewer deserving particular praise. The message of female empowerment is always a potent one in musical theatre – that’s those success algorithms picking a good theme again – and it’s especially powerful here, although placing an old-fashioned romance at its heart somewhat dulls the feminist edge.
So what has this experiment revealed? That the introduction of computer-based heuristics is no guarantee of success, to be sure: but the same is true of any musical. There are no short cuts to creating a successful musical – and Beyond the Fence is only part of the way on that route.