Review – Too Close To The Sun, Comedy Theatre

Saturday 25 July 2009

too close to the sun 150Some 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.

So before the year is even close to being over the West End Whingers can award their “2009 award for an outstanding display of spunk” to the cast of the Ernest Hemingway musical Too Close To The Sun.

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.

Blog-wise John Holt wins teh internets with his “Ernie Get Your Gun” gag. Others beating us to the table include Theatrical Leanings and Rogue Zentradi,

Meanwhile in the Titterverse:

From @BatBoySings re: Tuesday 21 July performance:


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.

With JMC

In fact it’s time to resurrect the Fram scale which has been collecting a lot of dust of late. TCTTS out Frams Fram.

45 Responses to “Review – Too Close To The Sun, Comedy Theatre”

  1. jmc Says:

    Having seen Leonardo, Bernadette and Which Witch, I can say this this was really something special unto itself. I haven’t laughed quite so much in a long time, as can be seen in the pic.

    My summary thought is that Hemingway’s heterosexuality was so performed and over-stated that it was always going to be the universe’s joke on his that he should become the subject of that queerest of events, a musical comedy.

  2. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    That opening number has now been cut. Think about that: a show desperate enough to cut its opening number… The first we now hear is called “Do I Make A Certain Kind Of Sense?”, a title which is really just doing our job for us.

    Let me put it this way: I bumped into my ex-wife at the theatre. We hadn’t met or communicated for 17 or 18 years. That was less disconcerting and more enjoyable than the show.

  3. jmc Says:

    Given the director’s name, I think that were Hemingway alive today, he’d be haunted by the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s song Billy 1 from Peckinpah’s Pat Garret and Billy the Kid:

    “They say that Pat Garrett’s got your number
    So sleep with one eye open when you slumber
    Every little sound just might be thunder
    Thunder from the barrel of his gun.”

  4. koe Says:

    You forgot Helen Dallimore’s warning “no mating-ducks sounds” followed by Ernie and Rex imitating mating ducks. That has to be the most wtf? moment of the entire show … hilariously bad. Destined to go down in history. I loved almost every minute of it, except most of the second act.

  5. Isn’t it sad that Lyn Gardner couldn’t make it? If she had then we undoubtedly would have had a new entry for the Zero Star hall of fame.

    Or did Shutters do us the honour?

  6. Miriam Says:

    It was an awesome evening. I was excited to see that the Independent quoted me (and him above) rather copiously in their side story on it –

    Was so lovely to meet you and the others, had one of my favourite nights out ever, I think. Won’t be going back for seconds, however…

  7. A Clown Says:

    Thank the lord for your notepad, I’ve been trying to remember that barracuda line all week.

    One has to wonder if Jay Benedict’s ‘knee injury’ was caused by the amazing scene where he was running around, miming to a pre-recorded thing of his own voice whilst old Ernie was singing about topping himself.

    A perverse part of me actually wants to go again to see what changes have been made, although I’ll be sorely disappointed if I don’t get to see the furniture collapsing again.

  8. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    In the spirit of Ernie (Wise) I got up early this morning and my three new shows are nearly ready. Stuck with rhymes for: Bülow, seppuku, and Bubbles.

    Any suggestions?

  9. well I’m just so sorry I missed it, it sounds like this was totally unique, and just too bad about the furniture, more about the knee!R.B

  10. […] Review – Too Close To The Sun, Comedy Theatre Some people will toss themselves off a canal bank to save a drowning child (the Whingers are just tossers). Some will […] […]

  11. JohnnyFox Says:

    Oh dear, and on Tablegate Tuesday after Ernest’s ‘Enough!’ it was me who exclaimed ‘quite’ …

    Am I personally responsible for all that happened as a consequence?

    I do hope so.

  12. […] West End Whingers’ review (which was based on a preview show, but only released after the press night) is a joy to […]

  13. JohnnyFox Says:

    The Alexa Baracaia ‘piece’ in The London Paper is outrageous – deserving of a complaint to her editor that she lifted the WEW blog wholesale, including jokes she herself couldn’t understand.

    Pretty shabby since she was a high-profile recruit from the Evening Standard to TheLondonPaper, one wonders whether Murdoch got his money’s worth:

    Still, final performance on 8 August – eh? I’m free. Who’s up for it?

    • Simone Says:

      I’ll take you up on that offer John, I am free that Saturday night!

    • Sans Taste Says:

      Oh dear. First poor Elly at the Tricycle and now Alexa. Will any of London’s young media talent survive? If you’re looking for some “moderately influential bloggers” to mess with, look elsewhere…

      Definitely free for the closing night. Given the vitriolic condemnation from everyone who’s seen it, this production can’t fail to achieve cult status in years to come.

  14. […] a really good review of the show which kind of highlights the above point see this review of Too Close To The Sun by the West End […]

  15. Seth Says:

    I’ve got tickets for tonight and cannot wait.

  16. The poor, poor actors…

    On the plus side, they do use quite a nice font on the poster…

  17. I’m holding out to see if I can get comps for the closing.

  18. […] By webcowgirl It looks like the camp bad musical sensation of this year’s London scene is Too Close to the Sun , described as “worse than Gone with the Wind – the Musical, but so bad that you must […]

  19. A Clown Says:

    If you do go again for the final night, you should try and use whatever influence you can to get the pirate girl reinstated 😉

  20. Sue Says:

    For what it’s worth, there was a whole Pirate Girl song when I saw the show on Saturday night. Is that what everyone is talking about?

  21. jmc Says:

    I do think, with a much better book & lyrics and with the songs arranged and performed a la Tom Waits, this could have been better than it was. Why did they have to perform it as if it was Company?

  22. Comps are available for the closing. Send a message to the email at my blog (click the name link) if you want one and I’ll see how many I can get.

  23. […] To The Sun was going to close just 2 weeks after it opened.  The West End Whingers have their own take on the show which is a must […]

  24. babycakes Says:

    Omigod! Have just been on ebay and they are selling off the props and furniture from the show!

  25. Clough Says:

    Ooh excellent! Thank you. Those naff cocktail glasses are pretty nifty – or there’s the patchwork quilt … Mmm. Decisions, decisions …

    • Sorry Clough, but I have dibs on the cocktail glasses (which I will bring to the Whinger Party next year) and the tea set.

      • Clough Says:

        Oh. Okay. Since your need is far greater than mine – and I loved your review – I’ll leave them to you. Good luck! I see someone’s bought the patchwork quilt though. Damn and blast.

  26. Graham Says:

    I went last night and was surprised to see they were all miked as they didn’t have to project further than 7th row of the stalls (or were they receiving the dialouge through an earpiece?). I thought they were all real troupers – just what we like to see.

  27. J.A. Says:

    “If and when my final cheque comes through I’ll be very happy to give you the inside dope on what actually happened”

  28. There was a grand total of 38 people in the entire theatre on Wednesday night – and that included two people selling ice creams. There was a woman in the row behind me having a very interesting conversation on her mobile during Act 1, but the people on stage were talking too loud for me to hear all of what she was saying. It seemed to be mostly about Marmite.

  29. DWDalli Says:

    I have to say we saw this on the last matinee and whilst it was by no means the best thing we’d ever seen, it wasn’t awful and it was perfectly enjoyable! Of course, being a huge fan of Helen Dallimore I may have seen it through rose tinted glasses, but it seemed that the critics picked up on problems and blew them out of proportion.
    But really, the cast did a fantastic job! They were all great (except perhaps the one who played Rex) and it must have been really hard to play to such a small audience, knowing it’s closing so soon! I have to hand it to them!

  30. […] went off when I was watching a Theater Schmeater show in Seattle, or when the chair collapsed in Too Close to the Sun) as the tension is nearly unbearable. This show had several scenes in which the actors were forced […]

  31. […] form of their blog to do something that can’t be done elsewhere (would you get this, this or this in the Guardian or The Times? Of course you wouldn’t but, with the Whingers’ overt […]

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