Beyond The Fence ~ Arts Theatre ~ 27.02.2016

The “first ever computer-generated musical” boasts the promotional blurb on the Beyond The Fence site and in the programme. Intriguing, indeed. Have we reached a point in the technical renaissance whereby artificial intelligence can create works of art which can out-perform creations by their human counterparts? Well, on the evidence of this show alone, then not quite yet – or at least, not entirely.

It’s a fantastic idea – to create the ‘perfect’ musical using data from various successes over the years. But the risk is always when you reduce decades of successful theatre down to zeros and ones you might just be missing the point of what makes each artistic piece so special. That you might end up boiling things down to the common denominator facts, and produce a bland, middle-of-the-road, nondescript piece. Of course the reality is that the show was computer-initiated rather than wholly generated by computer. This gave me hope that the human intervention would create a masterpiece by springboarding off a base concept created by the computer – which is closer to the reality of how the show was created.

Let’s start with a basic overview of the piece – set in the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common in 1982, Beyond The Fence incorporates the story of the women’s protest at the US Army base, a child who has been voluntarily mute since witnessing her father beat her mother, an army officer who witnesses the protests and considers his part in the proceedings and the possibility of romance blossoming between the army officer and the leader of the protest group. It’s an interesting set up, if perhaps a little formulaic. But in all honesty, shooting a piece of musical theatre down for being a bit formulaic is a bit redundant. They are not generally complex pieces plot-wise, and this is as good a place to start as any.

I suppose you might conclude that the computer-initiation is a success, as to me, any problems with this show lie entirely in the hands of the human part of the equation. However, pointing out the flaws in this production is rather harsh because actually I think this show isn’t a bad one – it just needs some work. It felt very much like a work in progress and with only a two week run at the Arts Theatre, more like a workshopped piece. All of the bits that didn’t quite hit the mark for me could be easily tweaked.

Personally I felt some aspects of the activism was a little heavy-handed, and although this was likely to be an attempt at reflecting the era, it’s difficult to warm to some of the characters initially, with their not-entirely-explained anti-male stance. Even from my own pro-equality and politically active stance, it comes across as aggressive and rather unwarranted because the only character whose background would justify such a strong attitude isn’t really the most vehemently anti-male in the camp. Softening the edge of some of these characters at the start, or giving more background to where they are coming from, would really help this. In the second act, it becomes a little easier to understand them, it’s just that initial introduction that takes you aback.

There are some great comic moments offered up on a plate that the team just do not do enough with. Having a group of people living closely together gives great opportunity to explore the general humour of people and those moments were there and very quickly skirted over. The only occasion where they really seized the opportunity was during the roller skating song, where the character Helen receives her birthday gift of skates and immediately sets off to relive her carefree youth. It’s through Helen’s humour, actually – and a strong portrayal by Laura Jane Matthewson – that the group become more accessible for me. She, along with a fantastic performance by Llio Milward as Ceridwen, provide a real heart to the piece.

Whilst the music may have been computer-originated, some intervention needed to be made to make the music a bit more memorable – I couldn’t hum a single tune upon leaving, and the lyrics were a little simplistic too. That’s not to say that the songs were bad as such – or that they weren’t beautifully sung, because they were – it’s just they were lacking that extra something that makes you walk home reliving the pivotal moments.

The fantastically talented and able cast gave great showing of their respective characters, although one or two were not quite as strong vocally as you would want during key numbers. The focus of the story being an all-female peace camp also gave a rare opportunity in musical theatre to have the main characters as an all-female ensemble, and there were some beautifully worked harmonies in the show. Genuinely stunning harmonies.

Special mention has to go to Hollie Owen as the voluntarily mute George. Without a single line to speak until the dying minutes of the play, her portrayal of a child traumatised into silence by witnessing her mother being beaten by her father feels crushingly realistic, and the silent friendship she develops with the army officer is touching.

So, does this experiment signal the end of traditional writing and herald a new age of technology? Not quite – not just yet. Beyond The Fence doesn’t work for me yet as a finished piece, but with a tiny bit of tinkering, would blossom. The experiment is in no way a failure, and is something that can be built upon.

Theatre will always need that human touch – you cannot replace that with computers, but innovation is key to keeping theatre alive, and any opportunity to find that first spark to create from should be seized. For me, Beyond The Fence didn’t hit all the markers as strongly as one might want, but like any new piece of theatre, give it a bit of breathing space and a little more attention and watch this grow.

 

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