(EDIT: This review has been quoted by the Daily Mail!)
(ANOTHER EDIT: This review has also been quoted by the Independent!)
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Trainwreck Express is now calling at the Comedy Theatre.
I’m not sure where to go from there, really. It’s rare that such a disaster opens in the West End, and Too Close To The Sun is certainly an amusing disaster to watch as it descends further and further from shocking to abysmal to “oh no they didn’t” and beyond.
I guess we should begin at the beginning, with James Graeme coming down the stairs as Earnest Hemingway and revealing how badly his costume was measured as he lifts his arms and we see the waistband holding his mic pack. Some bad dialogue and he goes offstage, a toilet flushes, and he comes back onstage with a glass of urine which he analyses and leaves on the mantle until the end of the rather long opening scene where a stagehand removes it by the time the set swings around again.
The actual plot (in as much as there is one, and it’s all in the second act) involves a gold-digging secretary (Tammy Joelle) hoping to become wife number five, old friend and slimeball producer Rex De Havilland (Jay Benedict) trying to convince the Hollywood hating Hemingway to sell his biography rights, and wife #4 (Helen Dallimore) strutting around as mistress of the domain controlling Hemingway’s diet and setting rules for everybody while working as fast as she can to get rid of the competition for Earnest’s affections. Oh, and conveniently enough, none of Hemingway's books are actually mentioned by name. Perhaps the estate caught the foul wind of what was going on.
I should point out that the music, lyrics, and production are by the same team responsible for the infamous 2005 flop Behind the Iron Mask, if that gives any of you an idea of the quality you’re in for. The brilliant dialogue includes lines like “What are you doing now?” “Looking for a decent script.”, “What part of Popeye never rusts?” “The part he sticks on Olive Oyl.”, and there are such witty lyrics as “I was the big barricuda” and “A hoochy-cootchy Alabama way down south” a scene on where to best stick the gun muzzle when killing yourself, and the night’s big laugh moment involves Hemingway sings a ballad about being stuck in solitary silence while Rex is off being manic about the film possibilities in a half-lit part of the stage and upstaging the song.
And speaking of being half-lit, someone must be pissed at Helen Dallimore because she wasn’t lit at all in her last couple songs.
But there’s lots of reasons to be annoyed about the cast, particularly Mr. Benedict who, despite being in numerous musicals, is entirely incapable of singing this score on key. Then again, neither can anybody else - perhaps the a-lyrical lyrics (Rhymes? Metre? We don’t need those here!) and a-melodic melodies (and I don’t mean in the avant garde outsider musician sense) are to blame, given just how many blown notes and painful flats there were. Although, perhaps a comparison to outsider musicians isn’t entirely off base: the opportunities for unintended laughter easily matched those of a Florence Foster Jenkins concert, though Madam Flo had the charisma to avoid losing over half her audience at the interval. She also, wisely, stuck to a single piano and didn’t inflict Connor Mitchell’s half-decent half-wtf arrangements on an unsuspecting audience including some unfortunate children.
Many of us weren’t smart enough to leave, however (including - to quite a few surprises - the West End Whingers), and pressed on through the second act with a Blitz spirit, not willing to surrender to the pain and wanting to see just how they could top themselves next. Would the raw timbre set catch fire? Would the stuffed deer head begin talking as Earnest planned to kill himself? We still hadn’t had a geriatric sex scene, so it was an obvious thing to hope for. Ultimately we got none of those three, but we were treated to some of the worst drunken acting in ages and some pointless songs after the suicide.
In other words, the creative team from Behind the Iron Mask have provided something for everybody who missed their previous outing to tell stories about and a guaranteed entry in a West End version of Not Since Carrie. It’s tacky, ugly, and the must-see disaster of the year. Flop collectors will cherish this, though I doubt anybody else will. Those trying to go certainly shouldn’t PAY for a ticket, but freebies are out there if you look and chances are you can collect a stub from someone walking out after the first 10 minutes without missing much.
Hell, you could probably just walk right in and the ushers wouldn’t care - it’s not like the theatre’s going to be anywhere near full anyway.
Where: Comedy Theatre
When: Until 5 September. Tu-Sa @ 19:30, W/Sa @ 14:30
How Much: £10-£55
Concessions: Almost certainly and Ambassador Friends can get top tickets for £20 at all performances. It’s also on lastminute for £10 and has appeared on their sales for as little as £3.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £5 for trainwreck entertainment value.
RZ Other Notes: Like with Shakespeare, tragedy can be a source of many laughs. Also consider checking with the discount booths by Leicester Square around closing time - some may have extras or promo tickets to give away.