West End shows that follow a formula are nothing new. A West End show that follows an algorithm is something else. Beyond the Fence is a musical that is, we’re told, “conceived by computer and substantially crafted by computer”.
It is not, however, crafted for computers (the touching story of a plucky smartphone that dreams of one day becoming a tablet device, anyone?). Rather, a pair of organic, carbon-based writer-composers, Benjamin Till and Nathan Taylor — creators and subjects of Our Gay Wedding: The Musical on Channel 4 — are drawing heavily from computer analysis of what constitutes a successful musical for us puny humans to enjoy. They are calling on programs such as the Computational Plot Generation system, the What-If Machine, and — for all those toe-tapping tunes derived “from algorithmic compositions” — Android Lloyd Webber, the creation of Dr Nick Collins of Durham University.
The hackles, of course, rise at the idea that Hal 9000 could hack into our heads and pull our heartstrings. After all, humanoids and machines alike can spend all year anatomising the success of a New York rejig of Romeo and Juliet (West Side Story) or a song-and-dance mash-up of whiskery old TS Eliot poems (Cats) without for a moment being able to guarantee they can use that knowledge to create something equally world-conquering.
Or can they? That’s the point of a show which is really a petri dish for a series being filmed by Sky Arts, Computer Says Show. Granted, the set-up doesn’t sound wildly exciting: set in the Greenham Common peace camp in 1982, it features an “unlikely” love (aren’t they always? Oh no, hold on, that’s the whole point) between a protester and an American airman.
I’ll try not to be too binary about predicting whether it’ll triumph or crash, though. I’m sure it’ll be all byte on the night. Sorry, am I RAMing the point home? Well, don’t blame me for the cheap wordplay: my automated writing program, Robot Louis Stevenson, told me you’d love that sort of stuff.
Beyond the Fence is at the Arts Theatre, London WC2 (020 7836 8463, beyondthefencemusical.com), Feb 22 to March 5
What they say
“Can an algorithm create music with all the humanity, emotion and drama that a person can bring? We cannot wait to see the result.”
Phil Edgar-Jones, director of Sky Arts