Writer: Michael Burdette
Music and lyrics: Robert Scott and Brendan Cull
Director: Morgan Young
When Nora Ephron’s film Sleepless in Seattle was released in 1993, the words “social” and “distancing” would not have been commonly linked together, but its story of a romance between Sam and Annie, separated by the width of a continent, makes it perfect to be adapted for the stage in 2020. This is, as the old song goes, “a fine romance with no kisses”.
Sam is a young widower who moves with Jonah, his 10-year-old son, to live on a houseboat in Seattle. Annie is a journalist with the Baltimore Sun who is almost engaged, but having her doubts. When Jonah calls a late night nationwide radio phone-in show to find a new wife for his dad, Annie takes an interest from a professional and a personal viewpoint and Jonah is left to organise a rendezvous on top of the Empire State Building in New York City on St Valentine’s Day.
It took all the charisma that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan could muster to save the film from drowning in syrup, but Jay McGuiness (who seems to specialise in stepping into Hanks’ roles) and Kimberley Walsh have ample charm of their own. There are few surprises in Michael Burdette’s book. His biggest problem is that everyone knows where the story is going and he needs the songs, which slot in neatly, to help it on its way.
The large Troubadour is adapted for social distancing. Strangely, when we see a more than half empty auditorium for a musical, our brains are programmed to tell us that we are watching a flop. It takes time to adjust, but there are big compensations. Theatregoers have long yearned for audiences that dare not cough and now they are here. Long may they remain.
Director Morgan Young’s big, slick production cuts no corners. A company of 18 fills the stage, backed by a 12-piece orchestra and Morgan Large’s colourful set designs, using a central revolve, enable swift transitions and allow for scenes in different locations to be on stage simultaneously. Standing out in supporting roles are Tania Mathurin as Annie’s friend Becky, Harriet Thorpe as her mother, Daniel Casey as her almost fiancé Walter, Corey English as Sam’s friend Rob and Charlie Bull as his would be girlfriend Victoria, the lady with the excruciating laugh. The key role of the precocious Jonah is being shared by Theo Collis, Mikey Colville, Jobe Hart and Jack Reynolds.
Simple tunes and lyrics mark the songs by Robert Scott and Brandan Cull. Their style is a cross between 1940s jazz and modern pop. They are catchy enough, but lack a showstopper until Walsh belts out Things I Didn’t Do, after which the show stops, albeit for the interval. In the second act, a duet for Rob and Jonah, Now or Never, goes one better and earns an encore. Overall, perhaps the songs could have been sold with greater energy if the show had more dancing. The shortage thereof is particularly disappointing when the company is led by a Strictly… winner.
Sleepless… is sentimental and predictable; it manipulates our emotions shamelessly, but resistance proves to be futile. It may not be saying much, but, without a doubt, this is the best musical in town right now.
Runs until 27 September 2020