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The Theatreguide.London Review

Too Close To The Sun
Comedy Theatre    July 2009

The death of Earnest Hemingway sounds like a bad idea for a musical, and Too Close To The Sun is a bad musical. But it is bad in unexpected ways that almost make it interesting.

With book by Roberto Trippini, based on a play by Ron Read, music by John Robinson, and lyrics by Trippini and Robinson, the musical imagines the last couple of days before Hemingway's suicide in 1961.

Ageing and ailing, he lives in Nowhere, Idaho with his fourth wife Mary and his secretary-cum-literary-groupie Louella (Both figures are historical, though their personalities here are imagined).

They are visited by Rex, a (fictional, I think) old drinking buddy of the novelist's, now a failed movie producer desperate to get Hemingway's OK for a film biography of him.

In the course of a drunken night, Rex tries all his wiles, promising each of the others whatever they want in order to get the signature he needs. But Hemingway resists, sends him and the leeching secretary away and, at this apparent moment of renewed strength and self-confidence, decides to kill himself.

You may have spotted two problems there already. The most dynamic character in the play, the one with something to fight for and something to lose, is Rex, not Earnest.

Whatever play there is here is about him, with Hemingway merely what Alfred Hitchcock called the McGuffin, the unimportant-in-itself thing the others are fighting over.

And the other problem is that the arc of Hemingway's story, such as it is, is upward. He is far more suicidal in the earlier part of the play than he is at the end, and his sudden lapse from re-affirmed vigour to despair, in the course of a single song, makes no dramatic sense.

But this is a musical. Are the songs at least any good? No.

Composer Robinson seems to have built each of them on a meandering melodic line that never finds its way to a recognisable structure, as if it were all lead-in without any actual song ever appearing.

The style ranges from bluesy jazz to the kind of dissonance that suggests Weill's or Eisler's music for Brecht, and almost every song forces the singer to strain for notes, making the cast, all trained singers, sound like non-singers being pushed beyond their abilities.

That vague sense that the body of the song never arrives is reinforced by the lyrics, which rarely rhyme, and are overly prosaic and literary in their syntax. Moreover, while they were presumably written for this show, they all have the feeling of being clumsily shoehorned into it.

A repeated pattern in the spoken script is for someone to give a startlingly non-responsive reply to what was just said, or to make an abrupt change of subject, in order to provide a verbal lead-in to a song that has little to do with anything that has come before.

The pattern is so consistent that every time anyone says something unexpected, you know it's a song cue.

All but two of the songs are solos, and most of those are soliloquies, the action stopping dead for a character's not-always-clearly-relevant thoughts, and then picking up where it left off, as if the song hadn't been there.

James Graeme is unable to make Hemingway more than a generic old drunk, and Tammy Joelle can't convince us that there is more than the ambitious bimbo to the secretary.

As Mary, Helen Dallimore does give a sense of the dedicated and resigned-to-the-burden carer and keeper of the flame, and understudy Christopher Howell, filling in for Jay Benedict on press night, evokes some of the desperation of the born loser as Rex.

Gerald Berkowitz

(Universally panned, the show closed in two weeks.)

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Review of Too Close To The Sun - Comedy Theatre 2009