Lucy Morris

A dozy classic

Sleepless: A Musical Romance
, based on the classic nineties film Sleepless in Seattle starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, had its official opening night at the Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre last night (01 September). Originally slated to premiere in March earlier this year, the show has the unenviable task of serving as an experiment for theatre re-openings across the country, with social distancing still a specified requirement for indoor venues.

On entering the theatre, temperature checks in the courtyard and registering personal details for track and trace are compulsory for admittance, similar to the rules for bars and restaurants. The foyer and bar area is spacious. Clear floor markings ensure social distancing as we take our seats in the auditorium. We are instructed to wear our own mask – or offered the option of a free, Sleepless-branded face shield for our safety. (Are you having fun yet?) Certain seats are marked out of use to space our theatre-goers. Although with so many seats left unused, it is difficult to determine how the show is making any revenue. To say nothing of the ghostly ambience of a half-filled theatre.

The story of Sleepless is easy to follow, whether you’re familiar with the film or not. We are introduced to Sam, a bereaved father from Seattle, played by Jay McGuinness (vocalist from boy band The Wanted), and his 10-year-old son Jonah, who is on the hunt to find his father a new wife. Worried about his father’s grief, Jonah telephones into a late-night radio station, telling the on-air showbiz Doctor that his Christmas wish is to help his dad find someone new. After tricking him into speaking to the Doctor, Sam captures the heart of the radio’s listeners, and is nicknamed ‘Sleepless in Seattle’. Enamoured by his story, listener Annie, a journalist from Baltimore, played by Girls Aloud star Kimberley Walsh, feels a connection to the lovelorn insomniac she knows only by voice.

McGuinness and Walsh arguably hold the most difficult job of the show, not only to create two complex and believable characters, but to follow in the footsteps of the loveable (and frankly inimitable) Hanks and Ryan, who underpin the film’s success. Unfortunately, the two singers do not match up.

The show opens with Sam at his late wife’s funeral. Confusingly, McGuinness displays no signs of grief, and this lacking portrayal gives little reason for son Jonah to be worried about his father had it not been written into the script. The relationship between the two seems more brotherlike, as the portrayal of Sam is that of a youthful twenty-something and not of an over-protective father, in turn making it difficult to feel any empathy toward the character. The saving grace is McGuinness’ performance soft vocals which complement Sam’s jazzy solo numbers well. Although the delicacy of these exchanges are lost in such a large open space.

Walsh, playing the loveable and enchanting Annie, also has big shoes to fill. There are times when she packs the stage with charisma and charm, particularly during scenes with her allergic-to-everything partner Walter (a gently funny performance by screen actor Daniel Casey); but again, the performances feel adrift during solo numbers. Her vocals are sweet and pleasant but ultimately fail to pack a punch.

The supporting cast are cohesive, with a special mention to Charlie Bull, Leanne Garretty and Dominique Planter, who lift an otherwise flat production with their witty and entertaining performance of the night’s best number, ‘Dear Sleepless’.

Although the flair of the score (mostly ballads) is in keeping with the film’s era, the stage show itself feels anachronistic and confused. Contemporary furniture and mostly modern costumes mix with classic nineties’ desktops and aged vocabulary, with Annie rejecting her present of a ‘new’ computer from Walter, as she expresses her love for the feel of a typewriter beneath her touch. Overall, the production seemed unsure of its own period; even more so when the cast appear onstage in the finale wearing eighties-style party outfits. All semblance of coherence had been lost by this point.

To be back in a theatre again after such uncertainty over the previous months is a novelty and one that is easily taken for granted. The handling of social distancing both on stage and off at the Troubadour is exemplary, and thanks must go to the Front of House crew for their professionalism in managing a tricky situation. While the excitement of being in an auditorium and experiencing the bright lights of the stage still exists, it is a shame that, for this audience, the first viewing was, at best, an OK adaptation of a well-loved classic.

Words by Lucy Morris.

Sleepless is playing at the Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre until 27th September 2020. For more information or to book visit the theatre’s website.

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