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Beyond the Fence review at Arts Theatre, London – ‘futuristic composition with traditional problems’

Rebecca Brewer and CJ Johnson in Beyond the Fence at London's Arts Theatre. Photo: Robert Workman Rebecca Brewer and CJ Johnson in Beyond the Fence at London's Arts Theatre. Photo: Robert Workman
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The creative process is given a 21st-century makeover as the people from Sky Arts and Wingspan Theatricals present a unique experiment in musical theatre composition.

As explored in Sky Arts’ TV documentary Computer Says Show, Beyond the Fence has been generated using state-of-the-art computer software to formulate the story arc, prompt musical styles and even suggest lyrics. Human writing team Benjamin Till and Nathan Taylor, the brains and stars of Channel 4’s Our Gay Wedding: The Musical curated the myriad of choices offered by the various programmes, fine-tuning the piece with the aim of creating a hit musical.

Using the collated narrative information of no fewer than 1,669 previous musicals, it’s not really a surprise that the result is rather dated in style. Little, if any, new ground is broken, either in the structure or the score. Despite the number of doctors and software titles in the credits, the problems that permeate the second act are fairly traditional.

That said, the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, upon which the story is based, is an eminently worthy subject for musical treatment. The passion, humour and resilience of the protesters is freely observed with pithy dialogue complemented by a varied score. The central love story, however, is sadly underdeveloped.

Ultimately it’s the dynamic, predominately female ensemble cast that sells this show, underscoring the musical numbers with sensitivity and capturing the spirit of unity that came to define the protest. Yet the neat ending, in which CJ Johnson’s spiky heroine capitulates suddenly to Ako Mitchell’s US Airman, sits awkwardly in the emotional framework of a musical that otherwise hits many right notes.

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Experiment in musical theatre composition that still has plenty of traditional problems