Contrary to expectations, the new musical Too Close to the Sun is not a crime against humanity – but it is a crime against humility.
Composer and co-lyricist John Robinson’s latest exercise in vanity producing (or maybe that should be insanity producing) of his own work, following the notorious 2005 West End flop Behind the Iron Mask, is now eclipsed by the even more monumental hubris of seeking to musicalise, but in fact only trivialise, the life and death of one great artist by far lesser ones who are simply not up to the task.
Described on the posters as “a fictional account of what might have been Ernest Hemingway’s last challenge”, we find him besieged by an independent movie producer pal Rex (who is seeking to get him to sign away the rights for a film of his life story – perhaps if he had done so it could have fended off this musical), while dealing with the competing attentions of his stoical, long-suffering fourth wife Mary and secretary Louella. “Writers are best met through their books”, declares Mary towards the end of the show, and you can’t help but concurring – certainly Roberto Trippini’s book for the musical is no way to meet him.
As for the perennial question as to whether the music or the lyrics came first, the answer this time around seems to be that they were conceived entirely independently of each other and then bolted together. There’s no rhyme, rhythm or reason to any of it, as the words listlessly float on a sea of indifferent melodies.
But if the quality of the writing is such that the show should never have got beyond a workshop, what is amazing is that serious theatre professionals (including an Oliver award winning lighting designer) should ever have collected around it to bring it to the stage, or that a West End theatre owner should have given it houseroom. It may simply be one of those summer aberrations, booked only for a limited, “filler” run at the Comedy, but it nevertheless devalues the currency and climate of the West End to have allowed it there at all.
They may be collecting their rental and the so-called professionals their fees, but it surely is a career misstep for the likes of Helen Dallimore, imported to Britain from Australia to create the role of Glinda in the original West End opening of Wicked in 2006, to return now in a show this feeble. In the circumstances, she – and James Graeme as Ernest, Tammy Joelle as Louella, and understudy Christopher Howell, replacing Jay Benedict (who has reportedly departed the show) as Rex – are to be admired for just getting through it.
The audience deserve a similar medal (and are duly issued one, with a souvenir badge given out on the way out). Some, disturbingly, may have come to jeer – but there’s not enough distraction in this show to warrant even that response.