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Review Round-up: No Comfort for Too Close

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Following his universally panned 2005 musical Behind the Iron Mask, composer John Robinson returned to the West End on Friday (24 July 2009, previews from 16 July), premiering his musical reimagining of the final days of writer Ernest Hemingway at the Comedy Theatre.

Too Close to the Sun sees Hemingway, battling the indignities of old age, taking solace in the company of his young secretary. His wife, tolerating this liaison so as not to lose him, is unaware that the secretary has a secret agenda - to become wife number five and inherit his estate. The arrival of Rex, an old school friend, adds a further complication, as he tries to secure the film rights to the life of the notorious writer. With bribery, lies and manipulation, Rex plays a dangerous game to achieve his goal.

The cast features James Graeme as Hemingway, Helen Dallimore as his wife Mary, Christopher Howell (replacing Jay Benedict) as Rex and Tammy Joelle as Louella. The show has music by John Robinson, lyrics by Robinson and Roberto Trippini and a book by Trippini.

“Tuneless”, “leaden”, “stale” and “fiasco” were some of the kinder comments afforded Too Close to the Sun. John Robinson is fast becoming the theatrical equivalent of Ed Wood, and now undoubtedly holds the dubious honour of being the most critically-derided composer in modern West End history. Most critics offered jokes along the lines of “the impotence of being Ernest” (Michael Coveney) or “to close by Sunday” - but few saw the funny side of the decision to grant Robinson a second bite of the West End cherry.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (one star) - “A four-hander musical about the last days of Ernest Hemingway before he shoots himself on his Idaho ranch in 1961 sounds about as promising an idea as the one about the Mexican who pushed his wife over a cliff in order 'tequila'.  … This is a musical that’s best (ie, not quite so bad) when nobody sings. The music is a chewy cardboard devoid of taste, style or melody - apart from that, I suppose it’s alright - although it’s made to sound better in the arrangements of Conor Mitchell … James Graeme as Ernest looks like a lookalike in a lookalike competition … director Pat Garrett should cut the show in half before audiences start shouting at old beardie to kill himself before the interval. After it, he merely demonstrates the impotence of being Ernest.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (one star) - “Too Close to the Sun concerns the last days in the life of the writer Ernest Hemingway ... and one can’t help wondering whether a sickening premonition of this terrible show was what finally persuaded him to put the barrel of the shotgun in his mouth and pull the trigger. Of more than 20 musical numbers, there isn’t one that either delights or lodges itself in the memory … Pat Garrett’s production plods through this rubbish heap of a show with leaden tedium. It doesn’t help that James Graeme’s Hemingway actually looks more like Clement Freud or that Tammy Joelle as Louella, the supposed siren of a secretary, is eerily devoid of sex appeal. Only Helen Dallimore has a hint of class and wit as Hemingway’s wife.”

  • Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (one star) - “It’s hard to know where to start with this, which is obviously a conundrum familiar to Robinson and his co-lyricist/librettist Roberto Trippini … How we long for a chorus line dressed as bulls or bells or anything vaguely Hemingway-related, instead of these four plucky performers who really should have serious talks with their agents … Director Pat Garrett might boast in the programme of how she 'puppeteered Kermit’s legs' in the film of A Muppet Christmas Carol but there’s nothing swinging here as momentum fatally ebbs away … Don’t despair, though: Behind the Iron Mask is currently being reworked, presumably for our delectation in summer 2010.”

  • Rhoda Koenig in the Independent (one star) - “You might not think Ernest Hemingway, especially in the last days of his life, an apt subject for a musical. John Robinson, however, of Behind the Iron Mask, is not deterred by a little thing like reality … Robinson's trite music pootles about aimlessly and tunelessly, and the lyrics (a Robinson-Trippini collaboration) eschew rhyme as well as reason … James Graeme is a kind of Frankenstein Hemingway, often apathetic, sometimes exhibiting a vivacity that verges on derangement. Helen Dallimore is a grim, stuffy Mary, pompous enough to sound as if she would indeed say: 'I don't want Ernie to pine after that which he can't be allowed to have' … Tammy Joelle, as the secretary, sings in a manner best appreciated by canine members of the audience, and generally seems to be auditioning to understudy the lead in Legally Blonde.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (one star) - “At the climax of this implausible and unnecessary musical about the last days of Ernest Hemingway his wife, Mary, sings: 'Writers are best met through their books'. It's the one true sentiment in an evening that almost defies belief … This stale fiction not only fails to illuminate the reasons for Hemingway's suicide. It also ignores the far more interesting reality: the night before his death, for instance, Hemingway dined out with friends and joined his wife in singing a jolly Italian song before retiring … There is a passable Latin American pastiche but otherwise the songs pass straight in one ear and out the other … Helen Dallimore as the long-suffering Mary, Christopher Howell as the noxious Rex and Tammy Joelle as the manipulative Louella do all they can but are defeated by the intractable material that tells you nothing about the importance of being Ernest.”

  • Dominic Maxwell in The Times (one star) - “To have written and self-produced one West End fiasco may be regarded as misfortune; to have written and self-produced two looks like carelessness … Why did Hemingway shoot himself? Depression? The knowledge that he’d never be the titan he was? If Too Close to the Sun has any big ideas about Papa’s downward spiral, they get lost amid Conor Mitchell’s impressively lush orchestrations. James Graeme as Ernest, Helen Dallimore as Mary, Tammy Joelle as Louella, and understudy Christopher Howell as Rex all do wonders with what they’ve got. They sing well. But these are West End prices for a show that simply doesn’t deserve to be there. It’s not good; it’s not so bad it’s good. It’s just bewilderingly drab.”
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