The entertainment industry's seemingly voracious appetite to consume itself is proved yet again by I Can't Sing!, the latest deeply self-referential musical to arrive in London that pokes all-too-knowing fun at the absurdities of television talent shows, and in particular the most successful creator of them all, Simon Cowell. That Cowell is in on the joke - both as a principal character in it and as the show's co-backer, with theatre producers Stage Entertainment - means that it is ultimately more affectionate than hard-hitting.
But as a man who craves publicity above all, it has hit its mark as another blatant exploitation of the Cowell brand. And it has some nice up-to-date jokes, too: when he arrives for auditions, he steps out of an onstage car - and brings a baby in its carrier with him.
The stage baby, meanwhile, that has been spawned here is like a cross between Jerry Springer the Opera, Monty Python's Spamalot and The Book of Mormon, though not quite as good as any of them. Those each found more solid satirical targets in cult television reality talk shows, musicals and evangelical religion respectively, where as I Can't Sing! doesn't really add up to more than a fictional backstage glimpse at the phoney fame factory of TV's The X Factor, which first went out in 2004, and returns this year for its 11th series.
But it is at least done with some grit, a little wit and a lot of glitz. It also refreshingly has the courage of its own arch, knowing (lack of) convictions, as it throws a massive cast and inflated scenic budget at a stage that's guaranteed to keep the eyes popping and shows audiences where their money has been spent. Designer Es Devlin, who was also responsible for the closing ceremony of the London Olympics, obviously can't resist a challenge, and she brings this world to 3D, Technicolor life in all its gaudy extremes. (There's also a finale effect that I won't give away here that is bizarre and bonkers, and puts the seal on those extremes).
Whether you really want or need to see Cowell and his cohorts like Louis Walsh, Cheryl Cole (re-named Jordy) and Dermot O'Leary (here dubbed Liam O'Deary) depends on how wedded you are to Saturday night television or its influence on popular culture. But one thing to be said for the show is that it at least has an original theatre score, with some catchy music by Steve Brown and lyrics co-written by Brown with Harry Hill, not a recycled jukebox one of past X-Factor hits.
Hill's own script for the show is more problematic, and at once both formulaic and self-consciously odd. The structure is simple enough: the first act gives us some back story to the auditionees, some of whom will then make it onto the X Factor finale that occupies most of the second act. But Hill is too intent on making them weird, yet stubbornly two-dimensional. A joke about the grandfather of a contestant kept alive by an iron lung doesn't have anywhere much to travel.
And the actors, capable though they are at keeping it all buoyant, can't prevent it from eventually combusting. There is no subtext to play, so the paper-thin characterisation turns to generalised mulch. Nigel Harman, teeth gleaming in the Cowell mode, looks appropriately plastic in the part. Simon Bailey is more insinuatingly creepy as X Factor host Dermot O'Leary.
Cynthia Erivo, recently splendid in the Menier's The Color Purple, has fewer colours to bring to contestant Chenice, but her stunner of a voice is once again the star of the show. And Simon Lipkin has fun manipulating the puppet and voice of Chenice's pet dog Barlow.
Sean Foley's production is both busy and buzzy, neatly propelled by Kate Prince's frequently exhilarating choreography.
"Cowell’s decision to back a musical that sends him up so mercilessly – there is an astonishing final reveal about his true nature – either suggests he is less awful than he appears, or that he will go along with anything just so long as it makes him more money."
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
"I'm not saying “I Can't Kvetch!” because there are all kinds of niggles and caveats – not least that the whole venture feels more than a tad belated. But there is a bonkers, surreal charm to the loopy lampooning..."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Although it has flashes of wit, Harry Hill and Steve Brown's show doesn't know whether it wants to excoriate The X Factor or boost its TV ratings."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Harry Hill's brilliant X Factor lampoon backed by Simon Cowell himself cleverly engages with popular culture without taking the audience for fools."
Simon Edge for The Daily Express