Some people will toss themselves off a canal bank to save a drowning child (the Whingers are just tossers). Some will rush into a burning building to save a baby (the Whingers will rush to the bar or from a theatre at the interval). Other selfless people might be moved donate an organ (the Whingers once sponsored a piano key).
But some acts of indomitable pluck go far beyond the call of what can decently be expected of a human being or even an actor. Such acts of valour deserve recognition, celebration and – in the case of people from the north presumably – the doffing of caps.
TCTTS (which we saw on Monday and opened last night) immediately, irrevocably and confidently takes its place within the pantheon of West End musical classics. It is up there with the greats: Leonardo, Which Witch? Fields of Ambrosia, Bernadette, Jean Seberg and Man Behind The Mask. Andrew – who saw none of those master-works – felt a tingle down his spine within mere seconds of the curtain going up – something told him that at last he was going to witness something that will be whispered of in years to come as one of the greats, something that makes Gone With The Wind seem like a masterclass in story-telling and musicality.
The four-hander imagines the last 24 hours in the life of the Nobel prizewinning (as we are reminded several times) author Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway’s oeuvre includes such classic books as A Farewell To Arms, For Whom The Bell Tolls and The Old Man And The Sea but the writers of TCTTS seem to have taken another book as their inspiration: Not Since Carrie….
Picture it, if you will: Ketchum, Idaho where Hemingway (James Graeme) will shortly blow his face off with a double-barrel shotgun. But when we first see him he his playing hopscotch in the living room and lamenting that his electroconvulsive therapy has rendered him unable to recite square numbers much less cubes.
Ernest, Ernie or Ernesto (depending on which character is talking to him) is struggling with his physical and mental health watched over by his wife Mary (Helen Dallimore, Glinda in the West End’s Wicked). There’s a sexual frisson between Hemingway and his young secretary Louella (Tammy Joelle). Then on the doorstep appears an old friend of Ernest (and ex-lover of Mary), Rex De Havilland who is seeking to reverse his fortunes by getting Ernest’s permission to turn his life into a film.
Now pay attention because this is complicated: Rex was due to be played by Jay Benedict although our programme confusingly contained a slip stating that Benedict was “indisposed” and that his part would be played by Christopher Howell. Well, it wasn’t. Maybe it was wishful thinking on Mr Benedict’s part or maybe Mr Howell just plum refused to do it. And who could blame them. But then on Thursday came the news via Jay Benedict’s website that: “Jay has left the cast of Too Close to the Sun.” “Webmaster” writes in the guestbook: “Jay injured his knee in rehearsals. He’s recovering with the help of physiotherapy. He has, however, now left the production”.).
Anyway, 20 minutes in the first walk-out occurred – clearly someone who was pitifully unaware that they were witnessing what would become a West End legend; all they saw was a lot of talking, a lot of singing and sadly they therefore missed the only plot advancement in Act 1 which took place 59 minutes in.
Come Act 2, about 40% of the audience had gone AWOL. The Whingers have never seen so many people desert a theatre at the interval, probably because when something’s bad we are the first to leave. But when things are this wonderfully bad nothing would keep us from returning.
To be honest we’re finding it quite difficult to order our thoughts on this one. Or indeed describe it in a way which will express its true brilliance for you. Let’s try and break it down.
The music: There is a Latin American number about happier times in Havana on which Miss Dallimore manages to bestow a certain dignity but poor Mister Benedict is given a number of upbeat musical comedy numbers (“I’m an international man of schmooze and romance” and something about a hoochy-coochy Alabamy way down south or something) which he is forced to deliver in a manner most unbecoming of a supporting actor in a play working its way towards the violent suicide of a literary giant.
But most of composer John Robinson’s numbers are reminiscent of discordant, smoky New York 50s modern jazz. Nothing you might want or be able to hum. It’s all a bit avant garde. The orchestration (Conor Mitchell) of these pieces are characterised by sharp blasts of brass on precisely the same beats that the performers are singing on, sadly depriving the audience of the full joy of…
The lyrics: of which these are a few of our favourites:
- ” I lived in a cold Paris attic lit only by candles”
- “A big man in a loud shirt. A big man with big thoughts”
- “Wasn’t I the top barracuda”
- “I’m an international man of schmooze and romance”
- The wonderfully barmy “New York is the citiest of cities”
- “Papa, can you hear me?” Ok, so we made that one up, but we’re sure it would have been there if Babs hadn’t got there first.
Roberto Trippini‘s dialogue: Our favourite bit was probably the conversation between Louella (who is apparently both Stalin on legs and a time bomb on legs) and Mary in which they wonder if there is any pepper sauce in the cupboard. There are some wonderfully redundant lists – of foodstuffs and of countries. Other favourite mots unjustes include the exchange “I see hidden depths” / “Oh, yes, she’s the Grand Canyon” and the rambling metaphor of “I don’t trust that pirate girl.. smiling like a shark before the kill” but the lines which provoked the greatest responses from the audience were Rex’s revelation that he’d been spending his time “looking for a decent script” and the sudden Act 2 exclamation: “Enough of this bullshit” at which point Phil (until now on his best behaviour with his fist crammed in his mouth) let out an involuntary shriek of laughter which proved as infectious as swine flu as it swept around the auditorium.
The choreography: no choreographer is credited which may explains the wonderful flailing displayed during many of the musical numbers.
The set: The talented, prolific but un-Googlable Christopher Woods provides a resonant multi-roomed slatted wall affair which nods to Georgia O’Keeffe and features some rather natty retro cushions, but its ability to revolve proves irresistible to Pat Garrett under whose direction it spins manically as people run from room to room.
But really it’s much greater than the sum of these parts would suggest. Thankfully it’s not all that gloomy – there is no no sense of Hemingway being a man about to blow his brains out despite his unexplained habit of cleaning his gun while blindfolded. In fact EH seemed chirpy and rather jolly, a kindly uncle partial to the sauce until his final song. Certainly his opening number – “Just Relax – Think Good Thoughts” performed doing his exercises gave no hint of what was to come as he reflected on “too many years drinking Martinis; only carrot juice from now on”.
We think it’s time to resurrect the Fram scale which has been collecting a lot of dust of late. TCTTS out-Frams Fram but in a so-fram-it’s-good kind of way. So much so that we have been telling everyone we meet to go, just go. See this show. Such is the spirit of the Blitz that pervades the audience we guarantee you will make new friends. We did.
In other good news: Phil found it inspirational and has been moved to write a series of follow-up musicals including a show about nursing someone in a coma for 28 years (Too Close To Sunny von Bülow), another about the ritual suicide by seppuku of Yukio Mishima (Too Close To The Rising Sun) and a two-hander featuring Evan Chandler and Michael Jackson (Too Close To My Son – AKA The Son Also Rises).
Too Close To The Sun is unfortunately an anagram of: No touts eh? – To close!
*We’ve learned a valuable lesson. We flew too close to the sun; we got burned. We saw this on Monday having been given comps in return for a solemn promise to observe the embargo and wait until after Friday’s press night before publishing our review.
Can you imagine how hard that has been? In the meantime, of course there has been something of a feeding frenzy in the theatrical blogosphere and in the twitterverse.
Meanwhile in the Titterverse:
From @BatBoySings re: Tuesday 21 July performance:
My FAVOURITE THINGS ABOUT “TOO CLOSE TO THE SUN.
1. Helen Dallimore falling through some furniture. Audience, barely able to contain hysterics thus far, cracks up completely. Leading to…
2. Actors’ complete panic as, due to Tablegate, there is nowhere to put props for the rest of Act 1 except on the floor.
3. Helen Dallimore’s trousers.
4. The entire ‘Hollywood’ song as performed by the wonderful Rex (more on him later).
5. The ‘meteor shower’/nuclear holocaust happening outside the house11 minutes ago from web
6. The lyrics ‘New York is the cityest of cities… I just want my future back’ or something.
7. The following exchange: ERNEST (angry): Enough! AUDIENCE MEMBER: Quite! REST OF AUDIENCE: (laughter)
Thanks to all the above mentioned plus @jmc_fire @jamesarnott @luisaramirez and @juls_chuls for helping to gild the lily of the evening that was Too Close To The Sun. It was our first evening out with playwright, academic and erstwhile blogger JMC. Think he really enjoyed himself.