Frey Kwa Hawking: Hello, Alice! We’re both Nora Ephron fans – how could you not be? My heart has felt doubly exposed to the elements over the past few months, which have actually involved a lot of watching and rewatching old Ephron movies. So the timing for this stage adaptation was right, for me. Nora, hear our prayer: cut us to the quick with your almost illogical charm and warmth!
We saw Sleepless: A Musical Romance on separate trips to the Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre. It’s one of the first big productions to open for socially-distanced audiences in London.For anyone curious as to the logistics of this performance: it was noticeably easier to keep your distance from people in the venue’s massive foyer and auditorium than it was on the tube over, for me. The front of house staff were doing a very smooth job. Still, it felt strange to be in such a huge, indoor space. We’ve been scuttling around our own little rooms for so long, hiding: to be in such different architecture suddenly threw me for a loop for a bit.
The audience seemed relaxed and reasonably receptive, but I felt sorry for the company as audible reactions were definitely muted. 400 people in a space intended for 1200 means applause is just swallowed up. But then I’m not certain there was a lot there to go wild over. This musical didn’t really get me on the side of the impulse to keep adapting classic films as a ‘sure thing’ for the stage – a difficult thing to do with real finesse. I wonder what you thought?
Alice Saville: I think ‘muted’ is a good word! Right now whenever I go to the theatre I feel like Scrooge on Christmas morning. Just glad to be here! And I guess something in me wants the performances I’m seeing to have that expansive joyful welcoming atmosphere; for there to be fake snow falling from the ceiling, for me to shed a little tear. Sleepless didn’t offer that.
But also, how unreasonable of me to expect that right now. Sometimes people describe movie adaptations in theatre as ‘cynical’ – maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I don’t buy that, because even the most commercial exercise in live performance involves so much effort, so many people pulling together, so much unavoidable financial risk. In the middle of a pandemic, that effort becomes Herculean; backstage at the Troubadour, each actor has to do a Covid-19 test and wait in isolation for the all-clear before the performance can even start.
Sleepless has an obvious timeliness (I hate that word but…). It’s about love at a distance, about the kind of loneliness where you don’t even know you’re lonely. Sam Baldwin is an architect whose wife died a year ago; he’s building a houseboat with his 10-year-old son, and seeing no one else, really, except his classic fall guy best friend. His son calls into a radio show, asking for help finding his Dad a wife. And then Annie writes in.
Annie’s obsessed with old musicals – with Cary Grant – their vision of romance might have been peddled by closeted stars, but she takes it at face value. This show’s songs by Robert Scott and Brendan Cull seem plucked straight from her fantasies, using jazzy midcentury musical idioms to bring Broadway razzmatazz to a damp Seattle. This musical has had a long and complex gestation; this duo are the fourth songwriting team to have been attached to it. At their best, their numbers are great value; especially the joyful ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ style showstopper duet between little Jonah and his honorary uncle Rob (Cory English). But I guess I wish that the songs looked forwards, as well as backwards; had darkness, as well as light.
What makes Nora Ephron’s films a bit sharper than your average romcom is that a) they’re very aware that they’re romcoms and b) they’re locked in dialogue with the past, of what we need to lose and what we need to take forward into the new world. That’s most visible in my personal fave, You’ve Got Mail, and there are shades of complicated nostalgia here too. Annie is outraged when her underwhelming boyfriend Walter tries to get her to use a computer, not a typewriter. And Sam is adrift among the increasingly feminist conventions of modern dating, slipping into a relationship with Victoria, the first woman who tells him what to do. But Annie and Sam also both make sharp breaks with the past, rejecting the cosy relationships they’ve slipped into in favour of the unknown. We’ve got the romance and metaphorical fake snow here – but there’s not much of the ice.
How much of Ephron’s spirit do you think survived this adaptation?
Frey Kwa Hawking: I know exactly what you mean about this “expansive joyful welcoming atmosphere”! I was picturing shedding that little tear too. It’s maybe a lot to unfairly put on this show, and I apologise for that to you, Sleepless. To get into why I think this film is an especially tricky one to take on – well, it’s an absolutely bizarre story, isn’t it? Annie is driven to unbelievable, ridiculous measures – using her journalist job to hire a PI to find out more about this man she heard on the radio, flying to Seattle in order to catch a glimpse of Sam, all while her love for her fiance Walter gently dims in the face of her obsession.
It shouldn’t work at all. But it’s Ephron’s writing and the performances of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan which manage to get us on board. In a way Sleepless is the purest form of a romcom: without the two main characters even meeting each other until the last two minutes, we are sold on really believing that these two deserve each other, because we have such a good sense of who these characters are. Seeing them apart, we imagine how good they’d be together, so those last two minutes are simply joyous, with so little.
I think Kimberley Walsh and Jay McGuiness both have excellent voices and seem likeable, but the format of a staged musical makes their job of encouraging us to yearn for the two to meet harder, if you don’t depart a little more radically in form (which I think might’ve helped). We can’t see Annie’s facial reactions to Sam on the dial-in radio show, describing his love for his ex-wife, with the same painful clarity. Why not rely more on movement, leaning into the old-timey Hollywood theme of Annie’s side of the story, to plug gaps like this? We’re instead dependent on the songs for that feeling – and I’ve got to say that I don’t have a strong impression of any of them, musically, not too long after seeing the production. It’s just a haze of anonymously jazzy adult-contemporary, so I agree with you. Some variation with darker tones and styles would’ve been welcome.
There’s this throwaway line in the film about how women over forty obsess over Sam, as they find it nearly impossible to get married at that age. The musical decides to take this at face value in order to have an (‘You Could Drive A Person Crazy’-esque) number featuring letters from would-be suitors, wherein three female performers all repeatedly emphasise that Sam is their last chance because the clock is ticking for them and so on? It’s confusingly judgemental and mean, when a key part of the film is that it’s Sam’s genuine love for his son and his grief that transfixes people, regardless of their age and level of ‘desperation’.
I think the design does sing, though. Morgan Large’s two-storey set revolves to act as Sam and Jonah’s home and other locations. It even has a small dock, for Sam to look longingly out over the water from – on the opposite side from where Annie tends to freak out at her friend and colleague, Becky (Tania Mathurin). The projections of cartoonish, architect-sketch renderings of Baltimore and Seattle and numerous airports suit the story, and the colours of Ken Billington’s often sunset-tinged lighting merges really well into them. A lot of purple, pink and blue against sharp lines – all that romance and beauty just beyond the characters’ logical sight.
Alice Saville: Arghhh, the ‘clock ticking’ number also got my goat. How can the most sexist bit of the show be the part that originated in 2020? Still, it was also pretty catchy, which was unfair; as someone older than Bridget Jones, I can’t go around just casually humming a song about how awful it is to be unwed and nearly 29.
I totally agree about the way that its Sam’s sadness brings out all this female yearning; he becomes a blank piece of paper for them to write their dreams out on. I was reading about the different types of musical theatre song (such is my life now) and one of them is the ‘conditional love song’ – where characters sing about what it would feel like if they were in love, for a bit of dramatic irony/foreshadowing. But this mood of longing, always in the conditional uncertain subjunctive, means that Walsh and McGuiness’s numbers get a bit samey.
There’s always this problem with musical versions of romcoms. Romcoms are short and don’t have enough plot for a multi-act musical. They rely on the charm of well-known and lovable faces blown up big on screens; as you say, we need those facial expressions. And the dialogue feels trite or insubstantial if it’s not constantly underscored with swoony movie soundtracks that heighten everything, giving drama to stories that emphasise movements of the heart, not of the plot. To get it right, you need to do something bold. I think Emma Rice can do musical romcoms and basically no one else can; her Brief Encounter had a huge screen, tumultuous physicality, Rachmaninov, dancing ushers in pillbox hats – even free embroidered hankies for the audience. I feel weak at the knees just thinking about it.
I have this fear, at the moment, that all the risks are going into ‘putting a show on in the first place’, not in ‘imagining what the performance actually is’. The seating and hygiene arrangements are experimental, and what you watch generally isn’t. I don’t know. Is that unfair?
Frey Kwa Hawking: In the case of this show, I don’t think that’s unfair. One of the things I most hate having to say about something is that it was exactly as I thought it’d be. Unfortunately, this was. Ephron’s touch is so light; one of the things Sam so lovingly describes about his late wife is the way she could peel an apple in one long strip with a knife, and you hear his wonder for it. Later in the film we see Annie do exactly the same thing, but it’s not emphasised with a figurative blazing spotlight – it’s just a bit of business in one of the shots. Adapting something into a musical means certain lines or ideas can be magnified, such as Annie’s love of An Affair To Remember, or the “women marrying after forty? Impossible!” thing. And what you choose to go for speaks volumes.
I don’t think the musical managed to match the film’s weirdness of concept and central relationship with its form, or to do what this love story in particular requires: to keep us off balance! To deliver something that feels singular, surprising! That yields that deep-felt satisfaction at the end! If you don’t pull that off, you’re running into what you’ve described there: not ‘imagining what the performance actually is’.
There’s certainly some sweetness carried over from the film in Sam’s relationship with Jonah. His line in the opening number about how it always rains in Seattle sets the scene well, marking their emotional low point. For some time watching Sleepless I wondered if the low rumble I heard in quieter moments was in fact that Seattle rain, underscoring everything, lending some melancholy to the kind of unvarying music. But I think it was actually the air con, keeping the theatre ventilated, hopefully keeping us safe. Safe is how this felt.
Alice Saville: Yes, it felt very safe! But since I saw Sleepless I’ve started to get increasingly anxious about going back to the theatre. Within 24 hours of seeing the performance, I got two pieces of news; one is that the social distancing requirement could be lifted in weeks, the other is that the latest UK Covid-19 daily infection count is nearly 3,000. Will the government deliver on mass-testing for theatre audiences, even though testing centres are already overwhelmed? Will we see hordes more indoor shows opening? Or was Sleepless a brave experiment, before a steep rise in back-to-school, back-to-office infection rates puts us back to where we were this Spring?
It feels like there are two main approaches to programming theatre right now – a) soothe an audience with romantic, escapist fantasies from the days when coronavirus was just a twinkle in a pangolin’s eye or b) take the David Hare approach and wrestle down the pandemic like it’s a maverick European director. Right now, I’ll take the escapism. Because it could have been staged anytime in the past 30-odd years, Sleepless felt a bit like time travel, to a familiar past or a distant future, a reminder of the sometimes reassuring, sometimes exasperating indestructibility of mainstream musical theatre. I don’t know where we’re going, but it feels like the blonde curled wigs and the taped-on radio mics and the primary-bright circle skirts will survive it, durable as nylon.
Sleepless is on at Troubadour Theatres until 27th September. More info and tickets here.