Friday 31 July 2009

Further criticism is unnecessary

Too Close to the Sun, Comedy Theatre, London

It’s a bad sign when a show posts its closing notices before you’ve even had the chance to review it. Even the most open of open minds can’t argue with a sweep of one-star reviews. I would like to be able to write here that they’ve all got it wrong, missed that point, failed to spot the genius in this production, but unfortunately that’s not possible. Too Close to the Sun is unremittingly awful.

Calling itself ‘A fictional account of what might have been Ernest Hemingway’s last challenge’, the show professes to cast a light on the life and death of the Nobel-winning novelist, explore his personal relationships and foster a greater understanding of a great man. Or something like that; we can only guess at the makers’ intentions because the production itself offers nothing of any value about the Illinois-born writer. Beyond the fact that he wrote some novels, was decorated for his part in the First World War and killed himself with a shotgun, Hemingway remains a mystery. Worse than that even, I now actively dislike him. God knows what the estate must think about this production.

What on its own would have been a fairly tedious play is made painful by the addition of a score that is not just forgettable, but genuinely difficult to listen to. John Robinson (the man behind the infamous Behind the Iron Mask) has written 23 songs that share nothing musically except for an irritating failure to resolve their final chords. The cast of four are all accomplished singers but fail to charm with any of their numbers such is the banality of this score.

The numerous factual and character discrepancies between the lyrics and the book would lead one to believe that their writers were sworn enemies. It is therefore surprising to note that Roberto Trippini (along with the multi-talented John Robinson) is credited as both lyricist and librettist. Traditionally in musicals the songs are intended to offer additional emotional or psychological depth to a scene or character, as well as moving the action along. Trippini’s lyrics however do none of these things, instead giving each character in turn the opportunity to explain a little bit of their dreary backstory. Removing them altogether would barely affect the narrative drive of the show and would certainly improve the evening’s entertainment.

Aside from the nice voices, the one (sadly not quite) redeeming feature of Too Close to the Sun is Christopher Woods’ set. Its simple slated wooden room dividers and desiccated cow skulls create a ghostly setting vaguely reminiscent of Oliver Smith’s design for the dream ballet sequence in the 1955 film version of Oklahoma!. Even this is effectively ruined however by an over enthusiastic use of the revolve and the actors’ constant running from room to room in an attempt to give the show some dynamism.

While Helen Dallimore and Tammy Joelle give solid performances as Mary and Louella, Hemingway’s wife and secretary, the male actors are disappointing. James Graeme’s Hemingway is a purely superficial rendering of a drunken misogynist; his performance isn’t helped by an accent in perpetual flux. Due to ‘indisposition’ on the part of Jay Benedict (from ‘indisposition’ can we read ‘desperate attempt to distance himself from this horrible show’?) Christopher Howell was on as Hemingway’s old pal Rex; he too kept his characterisation shallow and insincere, but to be fair, the script is so bad that he can hardly be blamed for this. In fact, the cast are clearly suffering enough humiliation through their involvement with Too Close to the Sun – you can see it on their faces during the curtain call – further criticism is unnecessary.

There are so many fantastic plays and musicals that never make it to the stage due to a lack of funding, yet somehow this one was made. At one stage in the show Hemingway describes the business of Hollywood as ‘bullshit wrapped in dollar bills’; people in glass houses really shouldn’t throw stones.

Till 8 August 2009


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