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First Night: Too Close to the Sun, Comedy Theatre, London

A trite, unrealistic portrayal of what might have been

You might not think Ernest Hemingway, especially in the last days of his life, an apt subject for a musical. John Robinson, however, of Behind the Iron Mask ("risibly lousy" – The Independent on Sunday), is not deterred by a little thing like reality.

The Hemingway of Too Close to the Sun not only pours out his heart in song, he tells snappy jokes, does a cheerleader routine and races around his revolving Idaho ranch house. Small wonder the audience is amused when his wife, Mary, observes: "That electro-shock treatment was a disaster."

The manic aspects of the show are far outweighed by the depressive ones. Pat Garrett's stilted production begins and ends with a radio announcement of Hemingway's death. In between, the lights steadily dim as he laments the malfunction of his "wang-dang-doodle-hammer", cleans his gun, and explains that the best suicide method is to shoot through the roof of the mouth. By then the musical has so successfully cast its spell that one starts to think, "what a good idea".

Billed as "a fictional account of what might have been", Roberto Trippini's book combines the real Hemingway and Mary with two unreal characters – a secretary from New York who wants to supplant her, and a producer, Rex, who wants the film rights to his life. Despite such authentically 1961 encouragements as "Go for it!" and "You do the math", nothing happens. Except for a Latin number that ends with a "cha-cha-cha!" flourish, Robinson's trite music pootles about aimlessly and tunelessly, and the lyrics (a Robinson-Trippini collaboration) eschew rhyme as well as reason.

James Graeme is a kind of Frankenstein Hemingway, often apathetic, sometimes exhibiting a vivacity that verges on derangement. Helen Dallimore is a grim, stuffy Mary, pompous enough to sound as if she would indeed say: "I don't want Ernie to pine after that which he can't be allowed to have." Christopher Howell makes Rex a repellently crude comic. The caricature may be an attempt to distance himself from the misogynistic jokes. Tammy Joelle, as the secretary, sings in a manner best appreciated by canine members of the audience, and generally seems to be auditioning to understudy the lead in Legally Blonde.

Trippini complained some years ago that West End musicals were based on "formulas which have proved capable of attracting a steady flow of ... customers". There seems little danger of anyone taking Too Close to the Sun for one of these.