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Brief Encounter With … Helen Dallimore

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Australian-born Helen Dallimore, who spent part of her childhood in the UK, made her West End debut in 2006 as the original “good witch” Glinda in Wicked at the Apollo Victoria. She’s now returned to star in the premiere of Too Close to the Sun, which has just opened at the Comedy Theatre.

After her time in Wicked, Dallimore returned to Australia to star in Matthew Warchus’ revival of Sixties sex farce Boeing Boeing. Her other stage credits Down Under have included The Hanging Man, Guys and Dolls, The Pentecost, Miss Julie, The Unlikely Prospect of Happiness and Up for Grabs, originating the role of art dealer Simone, later played in the West End by Madonna.

In Too Close to the Sun, Dallimore plays Mary, the fourth wife of Ernest Hemingway. Considered one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th century, Hemingway shot himself in the head with a shotgun and died on 2 July 1961, less than three weeks short of his 62nd birthday. He had previously attempted suicide and suffered from depression and alcoholism.

Amongst his many accolades, Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize, for The Old Man and the Sea, in 1953 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. His other best-known novels include The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell to Arms and To Have and Have Not. He also penned numerous short story collections and two stage plays.

Too Close to the Sun provides a fictional account of the events leading up to Hemingway’s death. It has music by John Robinson, lyrics by Robinson and Roberto Trippini and a book by Trippini.

What was it like making your West End debut in Wicked?
I had just come over from Australia looking for work initially. I ended up auditioning seven times in all before I was finally cast for the role of Glinda. It was a dream role, an absolute dream! As you know, the story of Wicked isn’t so much a retelling of the story of Oz so much as it is the story behind Oz, and a brilliant one at that. It was such a wonderful challenge playing the ‘other side’ of the good witch, but I really enjoyed my time doing so.

Wicked has some incredibly avid fans. Where were they like?
Fantastic. I mean, they were really something else. It’s so nice to see such a wonderfully strong following for a show. As far as stories involving young girls, friendships, coming of age go – all of these things come through so clearly in Wicked, women are just connected to the story very deeply. I thoroughly enjoyed my part in bringing that connection to life for them.

How do you feel returning to the West End in Too Close to the Sun? I am so excited to be back in the West End doing something so different from how I've been seen here before. Too Close to the Sun is a chamber piece, really, with only four actors - like a string quartet. I like to think of it as more of a play with words than a conventional musical. I was drawn to the script, and when I heard these extraordinary sung monologues, I decided to audition.

Were you back in Australia at the time?
Yes, I was and as a result I was cast via email! My agent sent me some scenes and a song from the show. I taped them and emailed them on the Saturday, was offered the role on the Monday, and was on a plane two days later. I was planning to come back over to London anyway, once I'd finished the job I was doing in Australia, so it really was just perfect timing.

Tell us about your character.
I play Mary, Ernest Hemingway’s fourth wife. She was a brilliant, strong and witty woman, who had been a very successful journalist herself. She loves Ernest passionately, although he’s not easy to love. He drinks excessively, is volatile and has been unfaithful to her many times. In Too Close to the Sun, their relationship is now more like mother and child. She wants to protect him from himself and keep him alive. But actually for Mary, it’s about letting go and accepting the end, which is very hard to do when you love someone. Not an unfamiliar theme for me, now I think of it! (Thanks for the experience, Glinda!)

There’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding Hemingway’s death. Why did this depiction interest you?
While it remains a mystery as to whether this legendary author killed himself accidentally or deliberately, we do know Hemingway was a very volatile man, depressed and losing his grip on his mind and his talent. What caught me - and this is true - is that Mary held the key to the gun cabinet.

What are your future plans?
I’ve been cast in a production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in Melbourne in October. I'll play Christine Colgate. But, for the most part, I’ve never really gone into a job knowing where the next might be. I’d love to continue to do work in London. I honestly just love working. Film, television, theatre, musical theatre, it all appeals to me. I have no problems dividing my time between London and Australia. My husband still lives in Australia, but I’d prefer to be working in both places. After all, England is my home too.

Any dream roles you’d like to tackle?
Obviously, there are several roles I’d really love to be cast in, but I’d rather not get into that, for the sake of not jinxing it! I enjoy my work and am willing to just go with the flow of things and see where that gets me. I mean, it got me Glinda and it’s gotten me here!

- Helen Dallimore was speaking to Ashley Alexander

Too Close to the Sun opened at the West End’s Comedy Theatre on 24 July 2009 (previews from 16 July).


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