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Review: Sleepless – A Musical Romance (Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre)

The new musical is based on the hit film Sleepless in Seattle

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
The cast of Sleepless
© Alastair Muir

Of the handful of shows that have returned to the stage since coronavirus closed theatres, this musical version of the 1993 romcom Sleepless in Seattle starring former pop stars Kimberley Walsh and Jay McGuiness is the most ambitious – and the most seemingly normal.

True, auditorium capacity at the Troubadour Theatre in Wembley Park has been reduced from 1,200 to 400, we wear masks and there's a one-way system to take us to the loo. But daily testing means that the cast are not noticeably socially distanced on stage; accommodation has been made with the constraints of a global pandemic, but this is still a musical as we know it. And a brand new one to boot.

All of which makes me want to hug the producers Michael Rose and Damien Sanders with pure gratitude; there is no earthly financial reason to persist in staging this show which was suspended at dress rehearsal stage. That they have done so is an assertion of their faith in the power of theatre to make people feel better, the capacity of love to conquer all, and worthy desire to show that it is possible to put freelances back to work.

There's much here to admire anyway. The show faithfully follows the story and the script of the Nora Ephron movie, about sad widower Sam (McGuiness), whose son Jonah rings a national radio show to make a Christmas wish for a new love for his dad. As Sam talks on air, from Seattle, women across America warm to his tenderness and his plight – including Annie (Walsh), a reporter from Baltimore who is about to embark on an unsuitable marriage to her boss.

The plot is paper-thin, but full of an understated longing for the world to be better and to have a purpose. What Annie responds to in Sam is his ability to talk about love and to acknowledge feelings – "I can't believe I'm so affected/A guy opened up/It's so unexpected"; her beau, on the other hand, has given her stock in the company for a Christmas present.

Jack Reynolds as Jonah and Jay McGuiness as Sam
© Alastair Muir

With a book by Michael Burdette and songs by British duo Robert Scott and Brendan Cull the story is told with swish and flair. The score, beautifully played by a 12-strong band, is jazz-inflected and full of zip and sophistication, evoking the spirit of the musicals of the 1930s while keeping its '90s setting. Director Morgan Young's staging is equally sophisticated, with a revolving grey cube at the centre conjuring everything from Sam's Seattle houseboat to the Empire State Building where the couple finally – after Jonah's intervention – meet.

I particularly liked the details: the way that Ian William Galloway's video designs have the description of the architectural plans written along the top, in a nod to Sam's profession as an architect; how Sue Simmerling's costumes introduce flashes of colour into a desaturated world.

However, for all the cleverness of its writing and construction, the show never finds a big romantic song to express the feelings of its main protagonists. Or rather it does – but it gives it to Annie's mum Eleanor, when she muses about how her husband said her name, which is terrifically and passionately sung by Harriet Thorpe.

In fact, all the best numbers go to the minor characters: there's a zesty song for three women who write to Sam after hearing him on the radio, and a clever duet for Jonah (impressively played at the performance I saw by Jobe Hart) and Sam's mate Rob (Cory English) in which they decide to take action. Tania Mathurin makes the most of some terrific, cynical lines as Annie's best friend Becky.

Walsh and McGuiness, on the other hand, are left with songs of indecision rather than action, of longing rather than fulfilment. Both sing beautifully, as you'd expect, and exude warmth but Walsh doesn't quite get to the root of Annie's desire for romance – she seems a bit practical to behave so indecisively – and McGuiness paints a better picture of frazzled fatherhood than he does of amorous lack of fulfilment. Yet both are attractive presences, and the entire show has style and class. I'm just glad it's there.