Troubadour Theatre Wembley Park
Review performance 22nd September 2020
Sleepless A Musical Romance appears to be the obvious choice for a coronavirus lockdown situation. The two protagonists are separated by a continent Seattle to Baltimore a distance of 2765 miles; extreme social distancing! The fact that the show was already in dress rehearsal at the announcement of the Covid-19 lockdown in March 2020 meant that with careful changes in organisation and a risky, audience capacity versus financial security, decision to be made, the show did go on. Daily testing of staff and cast ensured the safety of the production and in a theatre for 1300, under pre-covid conditions, careful spacing of an audience of 400, all wearing face coverings for the entirety of the visit, in the auditorium and foyer, achieved what at first seemed impossible. I found the measures taken were enforced by a friendly and approachable staff, and generally adhered to by an appreciative audience. After all, to be seen to be scrupulously following government guidelines and exercising a desire to be safe is the only way to succeed in the venture and prove live theatre could be done. The decimation of the theatre and entertainment industry because of the virus has had far reaching effects on those employed in the sector, and for those of us who find theatre in all forms an essential part of keeping sane and healthy. The unsteady future not only short term with the difficulties we face immediately, but also long term as we struggle to find a new normal, whatever shape that might take.
It was great to have room around me and space to stash my coat and bag and an uninterrupted view of the stage. The auditorium did not feel sparse or empty and there was an air of expectation and delight which kept the atmosphere excited if a little softer than you might find in a venue stuffed to capacity with an enthusiastic, clamorous audience we are used to. The one way system throughout was well signposted and maintained courteously by staff, with plenty of hand sanitising, hand washing, soap, hand lotion available everywhere. The ubiquitous merchandising was there, shame there were no Sleepless face coverings Covid ones or blackout eye masks, I’m sure they would have made a mint! Ordering drinks and snacks was simple using the Troubadour Theatre app, thus contactless and covid secure with purchases waiting enticingly at the interval. In fact I loved the fact that my mint choc chip ice cream was perfect to eat, not too hard to get the wooden spoon in, just soft enough to enjoy without it running away. It was a few blissful moments while I ate it without the face covering I have to admit.
Waiting for the start gave time to appreciate the set, which looked at first as a cityscape projected onto a cube pointing at the audience to separate the space into two parts, with the whole stage still visible to all. I watched from stage right and wondered if stage left saw as much of the action as I did. No complaints I’m aware of, so the device worked. Stage right was Baltimore and Kimberley Walsh as Annie commanded the space. It was difficult to see any nuance in her face from a distance, which dictated a requirement to emphasise emotion with her body. In the main this was achieved and I did like the way her feet were physically out of step with her hapless, allergy afflicted erstwhile fiancé Walter, played by Daniel Casey, as they walked across the stage arm in arm. Jay McGuiness as Sam occupied stage left, but I felt it was a pity the duet I’m Looking Up was distant in every sense, although the voices did blend beautifully the connection was not manifest. As the lyrics of this and other songs were a major conveyer of emotion, with neither character meeting until the last five minutes of the show, the lack of chemistry was a problem. I would have liked a little more time spent on the accidental and unknowing encounters with each other, to establish a feeling of destiny. An element that was expertly shown in the original film version of Sleepless in Seattle with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, but maybe this is easier to portray in the close up, intimate medium of film.
I did think that the better songs and scenes involved the supporting cast. The boy Jonah, in my case played by Mikey Colville, stole the show with the song and dance routine reprising the style of Make ‘em Laugh from Singing in the Rain with Uncle Rob, played by Cory English. Repeating the song from the key change provided a humorous and apposite moment that at last engaged the audience…the show must go on! The connection with Jonah and Sam, Rob or Annie, was the glue which kept the production flowing. however on the whole excellent and joyful performances from all the cast.
Harriet Thorpe was a brilliant Eleanor, Annie’s mother. Her song The Way He Said My Name portrayed the comfortable and deep-rooted love found in a marriage, and the success such a commitment can be, was sung with great sensitivity. The theme of destiny brought the bewildering pull of love into a strong and supportive place, rather than the intangible dream of meeting the “right” person. Perhaps the strangest scene was when the three archetypal suitors sang Dear Sleepless, sung by Leanne Garretty, Charlie Bull and Dominique Planter. Witty and beautifully played by all three, however I was worried by the sexist stereotyping nature of the lyrics. It is implied that women are desperate to find a man and the scene felt uncomfortably sexist. Perhaps the director felt it could be dismissed as of the period 1993, but I’m not so sure, we were more enlightened than that then and definitely now.
Having stated drawbacks the strengths were notable too. The set with its clever projections to transport the audience from a Seattle boardwalk, to the airport, the central cube becoming either home in Seattle or Baltimore, with changes of projection and shutters falling sedately from above to create the Empire State Building, were smooth and slick. The costume worked the colour palette to great effect, starting with black and white, moving towards a sand and terracotta palette for Sam and Seattle with a strong blue for Annie, mixing the two shades as the show progressed. The naiveté and youthfulness of the boy Jonah was highlighted by his bright zesty green coat and shirt. The bold finale with bright coloured dresses and suits, picking up on the 1930s feel of the old movies referenced in the show was the perfect joyful ending and we at least got to see a physical connection between the leads. I would have preferred a longer dance sequence to cement the relationship, but maybe I’m too greedy, or perhaps it was being starved of a live show. Whatever way you look at it the major success was to be actually at the theatre, watching a live performance, and experiencing an escape from the current pandemic in spite of wearing a mask! My mask had the broadest smile of the comedy muse of theatre…if you could have seen it under my face-covering!
The show Sleepless A Musical Romance had a limited run 25th August – 27th September 2020 at the Troubadour Wembley Park. Having proved it possible to stage live theatre during a pandemic, only time will tell if it is a financially viable prospect, or if the spread of Covid-19 cases can be attributed to attending the show. Somehow we have to keep our live performance truly alive.