Too Close to the Sun

Music by John Robinson, lyrics by Roberto Trippini and John Robinson, book by Roberto Trippini based on a play by Ron Read
GBM Productions Limited
Comedy Theatre
(2009)

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For a limited season of eight weeks Too Close To The Sun is at the Comedy Theatre. If you are interested in seeing this fictionalised account of the last days of Ernest Hemingway then do get there before 5th September because this is not a show that will have an extended life. In fact you may not even want to wait that long.

I would genuinely relish the opportunity to herald a new, original musical so it pains me to say it but this show has almost no redeeming features. The optimist in me hoped for more but should have known better given the unrelenting thrashing meted out to Behind the Iron Mask.

The action opens with Hemingway - a successful and intelligent man with an adventure-filled history - seriously ill, pickled on booze, impotent and suffering from writer's block. He is on wife number four, the devoted Mary, who tolerates the predatory and lusted-after live-in secretary, Louella. Add to this less than comfortable ménage the unprincipled Rex, who for his own self-interest wants the dying author to assign him the rights to his life-story, and sparks should fly.

The story could have been dramatic and compelling, but fails to be either and Hemingway commits suicide without the provision of any depth of thought or insight, either before or after in three execrable vignettes. The book further fails to create convincing relationships between the characters who are entirely unlikable, with the possible exception of Mary.

The too many songs contribute little except to extend the duration of the piece. Connor Mitchell's lightweight orchestrations and Terry Jardine's sound design go some way to submerge the risible lyrics but a lot of them get through.

Literary references to being "a big barracuda" are too obscure so come across as ridiculous, as do concepts such as "New York, the citiest of cities" (which surely can't be a reference to anything), and clichés of the "boy within a man" variety. Many of the lyrics are in free verse with the occasional rhyme plumbing such depths as pairing "share me" with "Ernie".

A particular bête noir is a first act song "Make Yourself One with the Gun". Sondheim has astutely covered this ground in Assassins with "Gun Song" and in so doing has set the bar high for those who follow. To use a pun in keeping with the standard of the lyrics, this insubstantial number misses its mark. Similar things could be said of a sub-Chess duet between Mary and Louella.

The cast work very hard to sing well, which generally they do, but, with so much of the composition in minor keys, tranches simply sound flat, and, although the assortment of musical styles is sufficiently varied, the show remains musically unmemorable.

Christopher Woods' set provides a hunting-trophy clad Idaho ranch and although director Pat Garrett puts the revolve to good use in a silent movie parody, its repeated use becomes annoying. It is also questionable to have the distraction of Hemingway walking through the turning set as he says his last words; or is this in fact a deliberate act to save us from the inanity of the song "Forgive Me Wife. You'll Understand"?

James Graeme imparts Hemingway with a good dose of bilious stubbornness and fares better than the two-dimensional Louella of Tammy Joelle who also has to battle with a blonde Betty Boop-like kit.

Understudy Christopher Howell is energetic as the shameless loser Rex and his clear diction and strong voice are a credit to him. Thoughts involving sinking ships come to mind in relation to Jay Benedict who is not playing due to a knee injury.

The pretty Helen Dallimore is the most successful with the paltry material. Her character Mary gets most of the good one-liners and she is alone in having any likable features or credible sex appeal: quite something given the sexually promiscuous history of the others.

In the second act the number of empty seats had noticeably increased and the giggling was barely suppressed. The cast deserve better than to bear the brunt of the audience's disapproval of this Robinson vanity project.

The derisive trouncing that the piece is getting in the blogosphere will be reflected in the mainstream press and I expect only unsuspecting tourists and those with a perverse idea of entertainment will go to Too Close The Sun to witness the car crash.

"Too Close To The Sun" runs until 5 September with performances at 7.30pm on Monday to Saturday and matinées on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2.30pm

Visit our sponsor 1st 4 London Theatre to book tickets for Too Close to the Sun

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti