One of London’s last big pre-Covid musical openings was Pretty Woman: The Musical, which opened at the beginning of March, just a fortnight before the lockdown shut it (and the rest of the West End) down exactly two weeks later. That was based on the 1990 film; now, as the first original full-scale musical to open in London since then, we have Sleepless: A Musical Romance, a new musical based, of course, on an other immensely popular 90s movie rom-com, this time the 1993 feature Sleepless in Seattle.
But this one has not opened in the West End, but in Wembley, roughly ten miles north of Shaftesbury Avenue, in a vast, hangar-like theatre auditorium — with seating all on one steeply raked level — for 1,200 people, that opened last year and has previously housed a return run of the National Theatre hit War Horse. A handful of preview performances happened last December, with Michael Xavier starring in the Tom Hanks role of widowed single dad Sam, whose son Jonah turns match-maker to set him up with romantic date that he hopes to find a new mom out of, in the shape of Kimberley Walsh’s eager Baltimore journalist Annie.
Walsh is now reunited for this run with Jay McGuiness replacing Xavier, with whom she previously starred in yet another film-to-stage version of an earlier Tom Hanks vehicle Big at the West End’s Dominion Theatre last September.
But while I really wanted to go in to bat for it and applaud the efforts of its lead producers Michael Rose and Damien Sanders to persist with what is being now billed as a “socially distanced run”, the show itself is distancing, and not just because we’re watching it from behind a transparent plastic shield that are laid on at the door for theatregoers to pick up (as an alternative to wearing their own mandatory cloth masks). It also feels like we’re watching it behind an invisible filter, in which its 90s sensibilities — “before laptops, smart phones and tiramisu”, quips the programme — feel like they’re from another age, too.
It’s amazing how, in less than three decades, a story can become a quaint period piece. Nowadays, Jonah may be urging his dad to swipe right for potential matches instead of ringing in to a national phone show to press his romantic needs. But that’s not all that feels dated and ersatz here: it also extends to the score (music is by Robert Scott, a regular West End musical director turned composer, and lyrics are by Brendan Cull), that is lacklustre and missing any real killer melodies.
After over five months of enforced theatrical drought, a lot was riding on this premiere, and it does offer, at least, a template for what might be a new normal for the theatre for the foreseeable future, with audiences capped at just 400 seats (a third of the available seats), a one-way system operating throughout the theatre (and, in the gents toilets, only alternate urinals being available for use), and most significantly, perhaps, daily Covid testing for the cast and crew so that they do not have to perform to socially distanced limits but can actually interact with each other.
Those interactions — some of them charmingly characterised in Daniel Casey’s book, based on the original screenplay — are at least played with character and conviction by the hangdog McGuiness, with scene-stealing support from Harriet Thorpe as Annie’s mother and Cory English as Sam’s best friend Rob. And Morgan Young’s efficient production, on a set by Morgan Large that’s dominated by Ian William Galloway’s video projections, is slick and handsome.
But far from feeling sleepless in Seattle, the show left me wilting and wanting in Wembley.