'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.

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