Comedy Theatre, London SW1
Opened 24 July, 2009

Whatever happened to West End musicals that were so bad they were good? Which Witch, Bernadette, the legendary The Fields Of Ambrosia… we shall not see their like again. More recently we have had to settle for shows which are simply so bad they’re very bad, such as John Robinson’s turgid 2005 offering Behind The Iron Mask. That was supposedly a once-in-a-lifetime project for the aeronautical engineer turned composer and lyricist, but he has evidently found a new lease of life, since here he is with an imagined account of Ernest Hemingway’s last days. “It had been predicted by some literary observers that this successful but troubled writer would die in eccentric seclusion on his ranch near Ketchum, Idaho,” announces a radio newscaster in possibly the most extreme “whoops-exposition” line I have ever heard on a West End stage.
The plot, such as it is: Papa (James Graeme) is past it, wife Mary jealously guards him, not least from ambitious secretary Louella; enter old friend Rex, who wants to persuade Ernesto to authorise a biopic. Drink is consumed, guns are discharged, songs are sung. Well, I say “songs”… Robinson’s earlier show came in for some stick for its doggerel lyrics. Not so here: one single number excepted, there is only one rhyme in the entire evening, and that clearly inadvertent. And I know I have declared many a musical’s tunes to be unmemorable, but they did have tunes. The songs here simply sound like bad recitative with periodic, random climaxes. Even the performers sometimes have difficulty finding their note. When a programme’s song list reveals that the opening number has been cut before opening night, desperation is in the air. The first number we now hear is called “Do I Make A Certain Kind Of Sense?”, a title which is just doing the job of uncharitable critics for us. One of the four performers has also been replaced since the programme was printed: Rex is now played by Christopher Howell, who exhibits the classic Englishman-doing-American intrusive “r” when he recalls his time in Havaner, in Cuber.
There is simply nothing here to maintain the interest for more than a very few minutes. The team seem to know it: rumour has it that closure notices may be posted even before this review can be published. On leaving the theatre I heard one couple reflecting: “What do you think, nought or one?” – “No stars.” But I’m a generous chap, so…
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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