The Sound of Waves lapping and distant seagulls fill the Charing Cross Theatre while a lone troubadour plays guitar beneath the palm trees, bathed in a lilac evening light. It’s Key West in the 1930’s and romance is in the air as Count Van Cosel begins his story of ‘undying love.’
‘The Madness of love is the greatest of love’s blessings’ said Plato but it would be quite a feat to convince an audience that a necrophiliac’s obsession for the body of a dead girl was the ultimate expression of this ‘mad’ love. That hasn’t stopped the creators of ‘It happened in Key West’ from trying.
Based on an extraordinary true story, it follows the journey of a determined and deranged German Count who is washed ashore on Key West and takes a job as a hospital radiologist where he meets the girl of his dreams.
Unfortunately she’s married and has tuberculosis, a death sentence at the time. After he poses as a doctor and fails to cure her, she entrusts her body to him (sort of) and he decides that he must dig her out of her grave and keep her as his wife, patching up her rotting corps as best he can. All in the name of true love.
It’s dark and funny in the first half with some cracking ensemble numbers and a few stirring belters. New Yorker Wade McCollum delivers a powerful performance as Carl and Alyssa Martyn is charming and perky as Elena though there’s little character to work with. Together there is a touch of the phantom (of the Opera) and Christine dynamic.
As the dying object of Carls’ obsession, Elena clearly does not reciprocate his feelings, and makes the good point that ‘There are plenty of other girls in Key West and most of them aren’t dying.’ Funny. But the narrative slows in the second half where our female lead is literally dead.
One of the shows strengths but also its weakness is its loyalty to the original source - the diaries of Count Carl von Cosel. In the end there is little drama or potential for emotion when there is only one fixed, obsessional perspective. When Elena seems to come alive in Carl’s house, she is still represented as Carls fantasy of her rather than allowing for a dynamic interaction between two characters. There would have been far more room for comedy if dead Elena was more than a cypher, and had challenged Carl or disappointed him in some way during the seven years they lived together.
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