Stranger Than Fiction

Rating: 3

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

by Richard Barber

In the history of source material for stage musicals, there have been some unlikely candidates, to say the least. The adaptation of Stephen King’s shlock-horror film, Carrie, lasted five performances on Broadway, the biggest flop ever until that point.

Despite its title and subject matter, Urinetown (about private lavatories being banned in a Gotham-style city) fared rather better, picking up a clutch of Tony awards. And the story of an upwardly mobile south American ‘actress’ became the all-conquering Evita.

But they don’t come much weirder than it Happened in Key West, now enjoying its world premiere at the Charing Cross theatre. This stranger-than-fiction true story centres on the deeply eccentric German immigrant, Count Carl von Cosel, who fetches up as an X-ray technician at a hospital on a small island off Florida. It’s there that he meets the woman of his dreams, Elena Hoyos, who is already married, rather inconveniently and has a nasty, persistent cough. It’s love at first sight for carl, who doesn’t let Elena’s rapid death from tuberculosis quench the torch he carries for her. He pays for her funeral, builds a grand mausoleum to house her coffin and visits her grave on a daily basis. When her spirit comes to him in a dream pleading with him to take her home, carl duly obliges, disinterring her body and living in apparent marital bliss for seven years with his slowly decomposing bride. In time, his ghoulish secret is unmasked and there follows a trial that seeks to put right this outrage to public decency.

You couldn’t make it up, could you?

Given that the triumvirate of Jill Santaniello, Jason Huza and Jeremiah James have lit on Carl and Elena’s story as the basis for a musical, it is incumbent on them to walk a particularly taut tightrope between the surreal and the sick in their music, book and lyrics.

That they often succeed is due mainly to an eye-catching performance from Wade McCollum, who manages to make you believe in Carl’s misplaced obsession with Elena (Alyssa Martyn) while also delivering deadpan a succession of dry-as- dust jokes. And he’s the possessor of a fine tenor voice heard to best effect on the unambiguously titled undying love.

But the piece falls away badly in the last 20 minutes, when satire gives way to sentiment and we’re asked to believe that the good people of Key West are moved by Carl’s plight and passion. Given the subject matter of this unclassifiable offering, how much better it would have been to keep the gallows humour intact until the final curtain.

Until 18 August at the Charing Cross Theatre, London WC2: 0844-493 0650,