X marks the spot
Rating: ★★★★ - Fun
Review by Chris O'Rourke published by The Arts Review on January 11th 2017
Can you sing, dance, write your own songs? Doesn’t matter, once the T.V. audience loves you. Fame is the name of the game and talent is a bonus in a reality T.V. world where musical contestants compete for audiences to turn on, tune in, drop out and vote for them. The better the sob story, the better the chance of reaching the final and making untold millions in friends, fans and finance. Or so the story goes. In Michael-David McKernan’s debut play, “The Voice Factor [X],” it’s all glitz and glamour in the sex, drugs and no rock ‘n’ roll world of the demographically driven, disposable pop idol. Manufactured for the moment, they’re here today and forgotten tomorrow, with only the manufacturers enduring to reap the rewards. It’s a world of clichés steeped in clichés covered in clichés. One through which Michael-David McKernan’s scathing script steers a dangerous course at breakneck speed. If it hits a few bumps on the way, and bounces into the odd pothole or two, “The Voice Factor [X]” still crosses the finish line in style, due in no small measure to some first-rate direction and two incredibly strong performances.
In “The Voice Factor [X]” Quincy, a sort of everyday everyman, gets duped into auditioning for the reality, musical talent show, The Voice Factor, by his lifelong friend Twank. Playing along for the giggle, Quincy, to his own astonishment, makes the grade singing a tune borrowed from his Dad. Without hesitation, he leaves home and his steady pub job to enter the competition whole heartedly, striking out on his own for fame and fortune. He has his own manifesto, but slowly becomes seduced, beginning to believe that he, too, wants the story sold to him. The one that ends with him having it all, whatever it all may be. Dad may not approve, and Jules might have replaced Twank as Quincy’s new go to guy, but when the reality behind reality T.V. begins to hit home, Quincy realises he’s going to have to make some serious choices in front of an audience of millions.
Structurally, theatrically and often lyrically, “The Voice Factor [X]” verges close to imitation being the highest form of flattery. Owing a significant debt to Mark O’Rowe’s classic “Howie The Rookie,” it embodies the same style of story-telling theatre. With its small cast playing multiple characters, its seedy world evoked vocally in a minimal set, its use of rhyming verse on occasion and with it all being delivered directly to the audience, it’s almost signature O’Rowe in places. Ideologically, it breaks no new ground either, offering relatively few new insights around its subject matter or on the rationalisations and self-justifications involved in selling your soul to devils. But what it lacks in enlightenment, it more than makes up for in entertainment. Fast, furious and funny, McKernan exercises enough of his own voice to blur, if not always obscure, his influences, sketching an array of wonderful characters as shallow as the world they inhabit.
Yet sketching proves to be something of a double-edged sword with regards to the father and son dynamic which asserts itself at the heart of the play. Given the lack of history and development surrounding their relationship, it’s easy to see the father’s tough love as nothing other than sour grapes. Similarly, there’s no evidence in the script that the Lenor drinking, chlamydia infested, fainting former altar boy is a better man than he supposedly is. In this regard “The Voice Factor [X]” asks a lot of its audience. With its lack of a genuine relationship sufficiently developed, it risks seeming to be doing just enough to emotionally manipulate the audience, just like the reality T.V. shows it criticises, rather than expressing something genuine, which it seems to aspire to do. Luckily it does enough to haul conviction over the line, even if the end seems to strongly reference the final episode of "Extras." With a brilliantly realised circularity between beginning and end, McKernan brings the story to a potent and poignant close worthy of a seasoned professional, highlighting some serious talent and potential in the process.
Indeed, serious talent and potential seem to be the order of business. With a lone guitar, a single microphone stand, a solitary man bathed in blue light and a relentless beat, designer Tiarnán Fallon Verbruggen crafts a clever yet simple set design that captures the unrelenting and unforgiving world surrounding “The Voice Factor [X].” A world of throbbing bright loneliness, wonderfully realised by lighting designer Shane Gill. Director Rosa Bowden keeps pace moving along nicely, but if pace is on point, rhythm is occasionally problematic, most notably during transitions between Quincy’s live T.V. performances and the so called real world. Making strong confident choices throughout, even if not all will be to everyone’s liking, Bowden shows herself as a director of some promise, capable of eliciting strong performances from her well-chosen cast. Michael-David McKernan is wonderfully compelling as the musical wannabe who never wanted it in the first place. As is the utterly brilliant Daryl McCormack, shifting seamlessly and convincingly between his cast of a thousand faces. Male, female, German, Irish, it doesn’t much matter to McCormack, who wonderfully evokes “The Voice Factor [X]’s” cornucopia of characters, needing but a few words and gestures and a matter of moments.
With “The Voice Factor [X]” The New Theatre kick off their 20th year celebrations with yet another new production by yet another new writer and another new company. And it’s a little treasure of a production. Granted, there’s things to be worked on. But with “The Voice Factor [X]” this young troupe prove themselves to be serious talents for the future. But the future's then, and this is now. And right now, “The Voice Factor [X]” is a powerful and ultimately poignant production, thoroughly enjoyable, rich with laughter and utterly entertaining.