I’m troubled. Deeply, deeply troubled. I’ve just come back from seeing Too Close To The Sun at The Comedy Theatre, and after reading some of the most excoriating (and entertaining) reviews of recent years (John Holt, as accurate and witty as ever, and spot on about re-naming the theatre) I had expected it to be the worst thing I’d ever seen on the London stage. Well, it wasn’t. (That honour goes to the late Nicholas Maw’s Sophie’s Choice at The Opera House) And, to be honest, it wasn’t even the worst musical by John Robinson (as anyone who saw Behind the Iron Mask would surely agree). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that it was any good, it just wasn’t as bad as everyone’s been saying.
Where to start?
Well… this was a book musical. However, it felt like they’d just taken a play and shoe-horned in the songs. Without the songs, and with a bit of re-writing it would probably work as a play. The songs did not, on the whole, add anything to the evening. They were just … there. This might not have been a problem had they not, on the whole, been lumbered with the most ponderous and un-lyrical of lyrics. From memory there were maybe three songs – at least that’s how it seemed – that had any form or rhyming pattern, or lyrical development. The rest were prose set to music. Fine for an opera, or for the occasional song, but we’re talking 23 songs here (YES 23!) in total, though granted some of them were mercifully short. With decent lyrics some of the songs might just have worked. There was nothing that was truly offensive, just nothing that stood out as being, well, worthy of being in a musical on a West End Stage.
The thing that I found really hard to fathom was why, given a cast of four, we only ever got solo’s or (twice), duets. No trio’s or even quartets to liven things up. Truly bizarre, though I suspect you could easily have put any four of the songs from the show together at random, with a voice to each part, and the result wouldn’t have seemed out of place.
There is one ‘BIG TUNE’, and it’s used all over the place. And very good it is too. So good Kurt Weill’s used it in Lady In The Dark (My Ship Has Sails..). Apart from that, well nothing to add about the music, except that contrary to most of the critics, I thought most of the orchestrations actually rather good.
Of the four members of the cast, let’s be honest and up-front and say James Graeme is miscast as Hemingway, and leave it at that. Ditto Tammy Joelle as Louella, the secretary. However, Helen Dallimore as Hemingway’s wife, and Christopher Howell as Rex, the old friend from Hollywood very nearly made the evening enjoyable. Sadly, a show with only half a cast isn’t really a very good show.
In other areas the set was awful, the lighting was ok, but a bit obtrusive, the sound was unobtrusive, which I guess means OK, and the band were… well, evidently doing it out of contractual obligation, but everyone has to pay the rent.
If there’s one thing that this show teaches, however, it’s that even a musical with only four in the cast needs a choreographer. I can’t believe that any choreographer worth their salt would have let the director get away with the unfocused meanderings that passed for ‘movement’ on the stage tonight, and no matter where the money came from – and this seems to have been another self funded project – the buck must rest with the producer for not keeping the director in check.
I thought the whole idea wasn’t a bad one – the Hemingway story etc – though as Ernesto’s last 48 hours seem to have been markedly more interesting than this show would have us believe, I wonder, well, what was the point of it all?
So to sum up, Mr Robinson, 10 out of 10 for effort, but probably 2 out of ten for achievement. There are plenty of young talented composers out there with great shows. Become a producer, and showcase their work, or write for someone else and let them produce, but please, next time you have a great idea for a West End show, lie down in a darkened room until it passes… It will save you a shed load of money on the long run.
My partner has asked me to add that, just as at the end of the tedious mess that was Sophie’s Choice we were left willing the Nazi’s to take everybody so that we could all go home (the opera ran past 11 O’clock) in Too Close To the Sun Hemingway should by rights have saved the audience from more bum-numbing inaction by topping himself a good half dozen songs before he actually did. Harsh, but possibly fair…
- Richard Voyce
30 Jul 09
This was a very brave decision by Michael Lynas and his team at ATG to book this musical into the Comedy Theatre at this time of the year; again they are pushing the boundaries of British theatre. Alas the British public does not share their sense of the avant garde or sense of humour. - Again They Goof!
28 Jul 09
I think Sunset Blvd should have been left where it was and to run through the summer as planned. At least it would have kept the theatre alive, rather than having a dead production in that could not survive more a further than an opening night. - Simon Venn
28 Jul 09
Dire jokes,bad singing,it made me cringe.I have seen many theatre productions and this is the absolute worst.I left at the interval.Save your money and see something else!! - Donna Rogers
28 Jul 09
Woops - Hemingway - Peter Godfrey
27 Jul 09
Note to Chris Porter - if you're a big Heminbgway fan, learn how to spell his name. - Peter Godfrey
27 Jul 09
What moron thought this one would fly?
I'd even rather endure the pub singer from 'Loose Women'.....wait a minute, which one? - joesmith
25 Jul 09
This "musical" was so dire that I left half way through - something that I have never done and I think half the theatre at least had the same idea! The songs and music could have been written by a four year old. I felt sorry that Helen Dallimore ended up being in such an awful production after her great performance in Wicked. What a come down it must have been. Do yourselves a favour - don't waste money on this one. - Jono
24 Jul 09
Following the West End vogue for calling theatres after relevant personages (Coward, Novello, Gielgud), I’m starting a campaign to have the Comedy in Panton Street re-christened the Bernard Matthews theatre, since it’s housed almost as many turkeys as the celebrated Norfolk poulterer. +++
I’ve seen bad plays. I’ve seen bad musicals. But this one manages to be both – it’s the script Max Biyalistock turned down as even less credibly awful than ‘Springtime for Hitler’. +++
The subject matter is the life and onstage death of Ernest Hemingway – author, hell-raiser, boxer, matador, big game hunter, fisherman, philosopher, womaniser, and witness to the whole bellicose drama of the mid twentieth century – both world wars, the Spanish civil war, revolutionary Cuba, and the Cold War and with a private life only marginally less dramatic including four marriages and dalliances with persons of all sexes from Scott Fitzgerald to Martha Gellhorn. Actually that’s not such a big range, but still – he was a serial shagger. +++
Somewhere there’s a show to be written about this picaresque and dangerous life, - but it was probably thirty years ago when his books were more popular and his life and suicide more recently memorable. By confining the re-telling to four unloveable characters and one cheap set, encompassing one boring drunken dinner and the morning after, Too Close To The Sun strangles the idea at birth. +++
No flashbacks, no back projection, no escape from the confines of Hemingway’s domestic dotage buried in a no-hope burg called something like Ketchup, Iowa. +++
Ranking somewhere between high and totally-off-the-fucking-scale on the ‘no legs, no jokes, no chance’ crapometer for measurement of unlikely musicals, the songs are total rubbish. Discordant, tuneless, unfinished snatches of ‘musique concrete’ are loosely attached to irrelevant lyrics which mostly don’t rhyme. +++
It’s impossible to tell whether three of the four singers are outrageously flat, or if the music just written entirely in minor keys. By a gibbon. The orchestrations are the musical equivalent of Tourettes’ syndrome, with sudden snare drum emphasis in places it simply doesn’t belong, all of course served up by the ‘orchestra’ of six who look understandably frightened by their task. +++
No choreographer is credited, with only four performers there are no big production numbers, the women don’t bother but when the men do move it’s like dressage in a knacker’s yard. +++
Mike Robertson’s lighting brings the great plains and atmospherics of Iowa indoors, including a meteor shower and a sunset as bright as Lion King’s, but despite the emetic revolve, the three rotating aspects of Hemingway’s house – interpreted in what looks like cheap fencing slats from Homebase – are beyond help. You could plug the Aurora Borealis into this corpse and it wouldn’t revive it. +++
This isn't really a production (no familiar West End producer is attached to it) so much as an exercise in vanity publishing for the show's creators Roberto Trippini and John Robinson. Both deservedly unfamiliar, neither has had a major success - have you heard of Robinson's 'Shipperbottom's Rocking Horses' or Trippini's 'Bad Samaritans Go Places'? Exactly. +++
The performance plods its weary way towards the inevitable, the moment when Hemingway puts the rifle in his mouth and blows his brains out, but it couldn't come soon enough for most of Tuesday's audience. +++
They really should have called it Ernie Get Your Gun. +++
Trivia 1 : Ernest Hemingway purchased the shotgun he used for his suicide from Abercrombie and Fitch, at that time a sporting goods and firearms supplier. +++
Trivia 2 : Gregory, the son of Hemingway’s second marriage was known to the family as ‘Gig’ and fathered eight children of his own , but at age 64 had an operation in which he became ‘Gloria’, and eventually died in the Miami-Dade Women’s Detention Center. +++
more reviews at www.blowstar.blogspot.com - JohnnyFox
22 Jul 09
I should preface this review with the fact that this was the opening preview, so the show may improve by press night. I'm a big Hemmingway fan, and given how interesting his life was thought that there would be plenty of material to work with, but this show fell very short. Hemmingway was nothing but a characature of himself, giddy with shooting and chasing girls, but showing no depth at all. The script was weak, with no real character development, and nothing to engage the audience. The opening scene with Hemmingway stretching in his house was laughably bad. This felt like a play that had had songs introduced as an afterthought, rather than woven into the fabric of the piece, and not one of those songs was memorable. I'm not singing any of them today, which I think is a fairly damning indictment of any musical. Both of the male leads acting was weak, which was a great surprise, and James Graeme (Hemmingway) doesn't have the voice for a lead in a musical - both the men struggled on this front. I sat in row C of the dress circle and struggled to hear Graeme in full voice. Both ladies had good voices, and carried their songs better, but were let down by a weak script and poor directing. Helen Dallimore (who was great in Wicked) was totally wasted. There were a few technical hitches, but given that this was a preview I've got no real issue with that. One point to note was that I felt the Trumpet was consistently too loud, drowning out the actors at times. The rest of the band seemed to modulate themselves well. Additionally, perhaps Graeme's low vocal level is an issue for the sound ops rather than anything else. Overall this was a show which failed to connect with me on any level, due to weak performances by the actors, some distracting technical issues, but predomiately I think because the show is fundamentally flawed.
- Chris Porter
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