a quick-and-dirty review of 'Too Close To The Sun' - a new musical about the life of Ernest Hemingway. I have to be quick, and dirty, because if I'm any judge it won't be around for more than a few days ...
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 invites the great plains of Iowa indoors with 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, and the much heralded 'meteor shower' is about as exciting as a busy afternoon in Ryness's windows.
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.