“We are Greenham”
For all the hoopla surrounding the genesis of Beyond the Fence – “a musical conceived by computer and substantially crafted by computer” – one does have to wonder would any of us have noticed had we not been informed in advance. The show is the product of a wide-ranging experiment to use artificial intelligence (including a computer system called Android Lloyd Webber) to crunch actual intelligence (about well over 1,000 musicals) to come up with the ideal book, music and lyrics for a machine-tooled West End hit.
Naturally, it isn’t quite as simple as that as the extensive credits (included below for your convenience) demonstrate, the results of all this considerable data analysis actually being shaped or curated into fully fledged musical theatre form by human hands, specifically those of Benjamin Till and Nathan Taylor (they who made their nuptials into Our Gay Wedding: The Musical). Thus Beyond the Fence was born, the response to the statistically-most-likely-to-come-up-with-a-winner scenario “what if a wounded soldier had to learn how to understand a child in order to find true love?”
So we find ourselves at the Greenham Common peace camp, among the assorted women of Green Gate – the political campaigner, the mouthy lesbians, the fat northern one, the bookish Asian, the kindly empty-nester, the sexually liberated hippy and the mother fleeing a violent relationship with her daughter who was rendered mute by witnessing the incident. And because the computer says so, we also get US army captain Jim whose sensitive soul and slightly gammy knee makes him apparently irresistible, even to the hardest-held of feminist credentials.
Beyond the Fence really isn’t that bad at all but crucially, it really isn’t that inspired either. Despite the intriguing possibilities of the set-up, the default position of the data analysis is always predictably straight down the middle and so nothing makes the pulse quicken, nothing fully engages our emotions. Director Luke Sheppard has cast his show astutely though and where they can, the company elevate the material into places that no algorithm can account for – the wry humour of Laura Jane Matthewman’s Helen a delight to see, Rebecca Brewer’s intelligent warmth as Kim frustrated by conflicting agendas, CJ Johnson’s Mary a forceful presence even as the plot twists her character too far by the end.
Likewise, Candida Caldicot’s musical direction has a job to break out of the middle of the road where the vast majority of the songs end up but occasionally, as in the graceful harmonies of full company number ‘We Are Greenham’ or the powerful control of Llio Millward’s riffs, something of the real magic of musical theatre is conjured. Ultimately though, the formulaic nature of Beyond the Fence is its undoing – the rhymes that plucked from a thesaurus, the romance that has to be shoehorned in despite no real dramatic evidence for it, the pick’n’mix approach to character which really never dares to delve beneath the surface.
Is computer-generated musical theatre the way of the future? On this evidence, not so much as it doesn’t achieve anything here that couldn’t have been done by humans alone, and done better too. But it is an interesting development in the intersection between theatre and technology that I suspect we haven’t heard the last of. To follow more about the show, you can watch the TV series Computer Says Show on Sky Arts which will culminate in a broadcast of Beyond the Fence.
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Robert Workman
Booking until 5th March
Full writing credits
Benjamin Till & Nathan Taylor
Based on a narrative generated by
Dr Pablo Gervás
And an original idea by
The What-If Machine
Prof Simon Colton
Dr Maria Teresa Llano
& Dr Rose Hepworth
As part of
The Whim Project
Music curated, composed & arranged by
Benjamin Till & Nathan Taylor
Based on algorithmic compositions by
Android Lloyd Webber
Dr Nick Collins
Based on a music information retrieval analysis by
Dr Bob Sturm
Dr Tillman Weyde
& Dr Daniel Wolff
Additional music from
Dr Pierre Roy & Dr Francois Pachet
Nathan Taylor & Benjamin Till
Incorporating additional lyrics from
The Cloud Lyricist
Dr James Robert Lloyd & Dr Alex Davies
Book, music & lyrics informed by predictive analytics & big data statistical analysis of success & failure in musical theatre by
Dr James Robert Lloyd, Dr Alex Davies & Prof Sir David Spiegelhalter
Experiment designed & co-ordinated by
Dr Catherine Gale