In what is undeniably a huge triumph for the British theatre industry, Sleepless marks the comeback of large scale indoor performance. Director Morgan Young’s production is leading the way with safety measures which have allowed audiences to return to the theatre as confidently as possible.
Based on the 1993 movie Sleepless in Seattle written by Nora Ephron, this musical is a romantic story of hope and fate. To base a musical on a film is not a new concept, Billy Elliot, Sunset Boulevard and Hairspray have all had critical success, and the film is a fantastic choice, it’s not ultra modern but it’s still relevant, it’s heartwarming in a very unique way and most people know it. So it is a huge surprise to me that this musical is so very underwhelming.
The leads do their best to carry the show, however their approach seems very under rehearsed. Kimberley Walsh, gives a physically and emotionally wooden performance as Annie, creating a character who comes across as shallow and indecisive, rather than someone yearning for true love. Both Walsh and Jay McGuiness, who plays romantic lead Sam, give a delivery that seems forced and results in every joke falling flat, with barely a murmur from the audience (I wonder if this could in part be due to the fact that it is harder to laugh in a face mask).
On a positive note, McGuiness’ relationship with son Jonah, played this evening by Jobe Hart, feels genuine and the two actors clearly have a rapport. Hart brings an energy to the show which is unmatched by any of the adult cast, his comic timing is superb for someone so young and he clearly understands his role in the story. The majority of the supporting cast are also superb, most notably Annie Wensak, Leanne Garretty, Dominique Planter, and comedienne Harriet Thorpe – who is incredibly underutilised in her role.
The music and lyrics, by Robert Scott and Brendan Cull, match the feel of the movie, but don’t quite transcend it in the way they should to bring it to the stage. Musical numbers are fairly repetitive with a lack of peaks and troughs to add drama and get the pulses racing. With a very lackluster opening number, the show finally kicks up and matches the excitement of the audience for ‘Dear Sleepless’, with Planter giving us a sample of the full weight of her range, finally feeding the audience with what we have been craving since the beginning of lockdown. This is mirrored in Act Two with ‘Now or Never’ performed by Jonah and Rob, really hitting the standard of performance we expect from a London musical.
Whilst the design by Morgan Large is visually stunning, and is by far the centerpiece of the production, there are aspects of both the design and book where the creative team have clearly tried to fix it in the 90s like its big screen counterpart, when the story is so modern that it would have worked just as well to keep it present. When it comes to musicals the time period just isn’t removed enough to give that big of an impact, and furthermore the story isn’t about the time period, unlike shows such as An American in Paris or Top Hat.
The hardest thing in the world is to move on after you lose someone you love. This story is about someone taking that leap, choosing life over loss, no matter how hard that choice is. This production doesn’t have those stakes. I had such hopes for this show, I love the film and I think a huge amount of work has been put into the production – especially given the hurdles involved and the uncertainty of live performance – but for me it falls flat and entirely misses the mark. There is not one definitive voice to the production, but rather a cacophony of investment. I leave the theatre glad to be back, but desperate for something far meatier.
Sleepless is playing at the Troubadour Theatre until 27th September. For more information and tickets, see the Troubadour Theatre’s website.