'Stop laughing, it's not a comedy': bell tolls for Hemingway musical

Standing in a huddle outside the Comedy Theatre during the interval, five theatre buffs were debating whether to bother with the second half of Too Close to the Sun, the new West End musical based on the final days of Ernest Hemingway.

The group all worked in the theatre business and had been given free tickets for one of the previews used by producers to test the water before opening the show to the public ... and the critics. On leaving their seats for the interval, they had been asked by a manager to stop laughing at inappropriate moments because it was "distracting and upsetting" the cast.

"I feel terrible if we've upset the cast but we just couldn't help it," said one, who is a musical director. "They're doing the best they can with the script but the fact of the matter is, this is one of the worst musicals I have ever seen." His friend added: "I admit perhaps we shouldn't have been laughing so hard. But from next week on, tourists will be shelling out up to £50 to see this show. Imagine what they'll think of the West End after that?"

These comments will not be music to the ears of John Robinson, the man behind Too Close to the Sun, billed as "a fictional account of what might have been Ernest Hemingway's last challenge." Even before the critics saw Robinson's latest offering, preview audiences were already savaging the production on internet forums and discussion boards.

People were regularly seen leaving after the first half, they said. On one night when one of the cast members shouted the line "Enough", one member of the audience was heard to shout back "quite!"

The play was so awful, the bloggers said, you simply had to go see it.

The play plots the final three days of the Nobel prize-winning author's life, as he lusts after his nubile secretary before shooting himself in the head with a shotgun – a somewhat unusual subject for the musical genre which usually errs towards light-hearted pick-me-ups.

But Robinson has something of a history when it comes to making musical flops. Four years ago his debut libretto Behind the Iron Mask was widely panned as one of the worst West End musicals in decades. It closed 78 days early after receiving what the Evening Standard described as "one of the most ferocious critical onslaughts in recent West End history".

Early indications suggest Too Close to the Sun is in for a similar mauling. This week one particularly unsympathetic online reviewer wrote: "When it comes down to it, whoever thought it was a good idea to make a musical about Ernest Hemingway committing suicide should themselves be shot. Go and see this horrific gem of a show. You'll want to say you did in years to come, trust me. But make sure you load up on booze before you even start, or you won't make it as far as the interval."

So with one turkey already under his belt, how did Robinson manage to get Too Close to the Sun on to a stage? It helps if you have your own company, of course. Rather than persuade an independent production company to take on the play, Robinson has created his own company, GBM Productions. A number of private investors have backed the play and, The Independent understands, at least one backer has put as much as £100,000 of his own money into the project.

The Comedy Theatre, meanwhile, which is owned by the Ambassador Theatre Group, was free during the summer months, a notoriously quiet time of the year for new productions in London's theatreland.

But whilst those behind the play may nervously await the reviews, one member of the cast appears to have fled the critics' poison pens.

When The Independent attended a preview on Thursday night the role of Rex de Havilland, a fictional friend of Hemingway, was played by an understudy because Jay Benedict had "injured his knee in rehearsals". A posting on his own blog claimed Benedict had now "left the production" although a spokesperson for the Ambassador Theatre Group last night said: "That's news to me. As far as I'm aware he will be back when his knee is better."

Too Close to the Sun: The punters' verdict

*"This was an unintentional comedy, with the audience sniggering through both acts. The majority left at the interval, and those who did remain had to self-medicate to make it through the remaining 12(!) songs, including yours truly."

*"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."

*"It's tacky, ugly, and the must-see disaster of the year"

*"The applause... was the most forced I have ever heard in a theatre – polite and hardly audible at best. Eleven people left the stalls within the first 45 minutes."

*"You'll love it for all the wrong reasons."

*"So many people walked out after the first half it wasn't even funny. I also broke my own golden rules of theatre etiquette and turned on my phone to text – I just had to tell someone how dreadful it was."

Taken from the blogs on theatricalleanings.blogspot.com and www.roguezentradi.blogspot.com.

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?