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Scientists from Cambridge University and Goldsmiths' College London and universities in Europe have analysed hundreds of successful musicals and some unsuccessful ones to find what is the winning combination of plot lines. On a four way grid they compared those which were popular with the public, those that had goodreviews, those which were successful and those that failed. The computer suggested a love story was essential, a death figured in many successful musicals, and a happy ending gained popularity with the public. Further they found that set in the past would be preferable to the present or future, the 1980s seemed hot, and in terms of the UK, it shouldn't be set in the USA.
If it all sounds rather formulaic, this would be one of its strengths in the wittily entitled, "Computer Says Show!" Benjamin Till and his husband, actor and writer, Nathan Taylor, who turned their own lovely wedding into an award winning musical, Our Gay Wedding: the Musical, are tasked with turning computer generated tunes and plot and words into music, the book and witty lyrics. These two had just four and a half months to merge the computer generated components into a West End musical. I suspect the computers may not have looked at budgets for success but Sky Arts and Wingspan Theatricals are sponsoringBeyond the Fence.
The concept works. It's based around the stories of a group of women who left their homes to camp at Greenham Common in Berkshire where the US Air Force base was getting ready to take delivery of Cruise missiles in the 1980s after the British government allowed the US to store and launch them in England.
Mary Moreton (CJ Johnson) is a single mother of George (Hollie Owen/Zaiya Omamori), a little girl who won't talk but signs and who wears an old military helmet which was her grandfather's. Mary was in n abusive marriage and George has been bullied at several schools. The camp leader at the Green Gate is Kim(Rebecca Brewer) who promotes non violent protest.
Raven (Leonie Elliott) is a wild child, difficult to reign in, and Margie (Annie Wensak) is an older woman who mothers the camp. Helen is played by Laura Jane Matthewson, who so impressed in Dogfight, a girl with a weight problem finding her feet and her confidence who sings the inspiring"Graceful". Ceridwen (LlioMilward) is a man mad heterosexual woman who is finding the "No Men" policy at their gate, difficult. Her song is about being in a heterosexual minority.
Ako Mitchell plays Jim Meadows, an American airman who befriends George but finds Mary resistant to his involvement. The Computer said, "What if there was awounded soldier who had to learn how to understand a child in order to find true love?" Jim's wounds are theloss of his wife and baby in childbirth.
Although Benjamin and Nathan have shaped the tunes and Benjamin is responsible for all the orchestrations, notes were generated as algorithmic compositions by the magnificently named Android Lloyd Webber,developed by Dr Nick Collins with additional music from Flow composer. For comprehensive credits, see below.
Emotional highs and lows are plotted by the computer so Act One ends on a high energy song and dance "At Our Feet". The Berkshire Truancy Officer threatens totake George away and put her into care.
For my money it is Act Two which is thrilling. The computer had suggested different styles of music, so Mary and Jim stand off in "How Dare You" each accusing the other and often using the same accusatory language. Each of course thinks they are right. I also really liked Margie's song "Bouncing Back" with its spirit of resistance in adverse circumstances while the women wield yellow dusters,cleaning aerosols and Marigold rubber gloves.
I could hear every lyric, many of them witty and fun, so the diction and the sound quality is so much better than computer generated speech! Tom Rogers has a free hand with the design, the set dominated by the wire fence which is breached at regular intervals. The fence is hung with children's clothes as was the original as a reminder that the women are there for a non nuclear future for their children and their grandchildren. Posters of slogans decorate the fence. Black and white video footage shows the women climbing over the fence in the dark. We see the camps broken up by police and the women rebuilding after so many of their small comforts have been destroyed.
Beyond the Fence has charm and modesty with pretty tunes and wonderful singing from CJ Johnson and Ako Mitchell. Luke Sheppard directs with skill.
There is also a singing surprise in the second act which I won't spoil by revealing here but you will want to applaud long and hard. So quite apart from its contrived test tube birth, Beyond the Fence delivers political history of peaceful resistance with a human face, thanks I suspect to the dedication of its curators. The musical ends with the candles and mirrors as in December 1983, a phenomenal 50,000 women encircled Greenham Common in "Reflect theBase".
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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