I was always going to be excited about a musical adaptation of the movie Sleepless In Seattle as the film has always been a favourite of mine. Before the world went crazy, this was a show I was looking forward to seeing this year. Given everything that has happened in the last six months, finally seeing Sleepless was a very different experience but, if anything, it only added to the excitement.
If you haven't been following the journey of Sleepless, following a couple of workshop performances last December, the show was due to have its world premiere at the brand new Troubadour Theatre in Wembley Park in March. In June, the theatre took us all by surprise by announcing it would be the first indoor theatre to reopen in August after submitting plans for safe performances. At the time it felt uncertain that would happen but, true to their word, the Troubadour became the first indoor theatre to open its doors again.
If you're wondering how it is financially viable to run a show like Sleepless with social distancing and a reduced capacity, a note in the programme makes it clear that it isn't. The show is going on as a labour of love to send a message of hope and give some much needed happiness to theatre fans. Unfortunately, the theatre will be closing its doors again after this run ends and won't be able to reopen again until social distancing rules are relaxed which makes this performance all the more special.
The Troubadour theatre is one of the newest theatres in London, having been converted from the previous Fountain Studios, home of The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent. The fact it's so new worked in its favour as it boasts a spacious foyer, meaning social distancing is easy to maintain. Other safety measures were in place including a reduced capacity from 1200 to 400, temperature checks on entry, contactless bag checks and you had to keep your mask on during the show. An added bonus was a gift of a Sleepless branded visor upon entry - keeping you safe and stylish at the safe time. At no point during the performance did I feel like I was at risk. If anything the opposite was true - theatre is a safe space for myself and so many others, and I felt truly at home here.
On to the show itself. Upon entering the theatre, the first thing that greets you is the truly impressive stage. An extremely wide stage in an unusual shape covered up at first with the Seattle skyline, add to that a small moat (!) surrounding the stage and you feel like you really are in Seattle. The action isn't limited to the stage with some of the action taking place on the tables in front. When Jonah sings "It always rains in Seattle", the sound of rain falling fills the auditorium. All of this makes the experience an immersive affair (to remember). One of my favourite things about theatre is losing myself in the show and escaping from reality - this show does that to great success.
When the screens go up, the stage is equally impressive - a house on a revolve that spins to reveal simultaneous scenes from our two leads, Sam and Annie. The set design from Morgan Large is a thing of beauty, coupled with brilliant videos from Ian William Galloway.
If you are not familiar with the story, it is about a man starting a new life in Seattle with his son after the death of his wife. A woman hears him talk about the pain of losing his wife on the radio and convinces herself they are meant to be together.
The cast consists of Jay McGuinness playing Sam and Kimberley Walsh playing Annie. Two people better known for being in pop groups but have now moved into the world of theatre. This is the second time they have performed together after sharing the stage for another Tom Hanks film adaptation last year with BIG. Jay McGuinness doesn't try to emulate Tom Hanks, instead finding his own way to channel the emotional depth of the recently widowed, now single father. The character of Annie is a difficult one to portray - sometimes neurotic, sometimes coming across as cocky but always a die hard romantic wanting something more than the person she has agreed to marry. Kimberley Walsh does a fine job of playing the role, although sometimes it feels like the character isn't as easy to warm to as she was in the movie.
Other cast members include comedy icon Harriet Thorpe in a small but memorable role as Annie's mother Eleanor, Tania Mathurin as Annie's friend Becky and Daniel Casey as Annie's fiancee Walter. The star in this show though has to go to Jobe Hart, who is sharing the role of Sam's son Jonah with three other young actors. Jobe played the comedy to perfection, broke every heart in the audience when he sobbed for his dead mother and was the emotional core of the show. His double act with Cory English, playing Rob, resulted in one of the standout moments in the show with the impressively choreographed and hilarious 'Now or Never'.
The songs, written by Robert Scott and Brendan Cull vary in style, with some feeling like a tribute to Sondheim (never a bad thing). Standouts include the fantastic 'Dear Sleepless' performed by three would be suiters who have fallen in love with Sam and Kimberley Walsh's big act 1 closer 'Things I Didn't Do'. The best song of the show, for me, was Jay McGuinness' heartbreaking solo number midway through act 1, 'Everything' where he speaks of how much he loved his wife and the pain of losing her - a truly gorgeous and moving song.
Chemistry between cast members is what can make or break a show. While Walsh and McGuinness don't properly meet until the final scene (near misses aside), chemistry between other cast members makes up for the lack of scenes they share. As previously mentioned, Cory English and Jobe Hart are a hilarious double act and have the most memorable scenes in the entire show. The bond between McGuinness and his stage son Hart is also a highlight.
The film boasts one of the most iconic scenes in movies with the long awaited meeting between Sam and Annie on the Empire State Building. The way the stage quickly transforms from various New York locations until eventually settling on the Empire state building had my pulse racing with excitement - the payoff was very much worth the wait
It's a hard job to bring a film as well loved as Sleepless in Seattle to life on stage and do it justice. To say Sleepless achieves it would be an understatement. Whereas last years BIG was a perfectly fine piece of theatre, Sleepless is sensational. Stunning staging, amazing cast members and a lovely story make this a fantastic addition to the world of musicals. I came out of the theatre with the biggest smile on my face I have had in a long time - that is the testament of a good show. The show lived up to every expectation I had and more. The show is playing a limited run but I hope there is more life in store for it afterwards as this show deserves to be seen by the masses.
The producers of Sleepless didn't have to put this show on so I am incredibly thankful they opened their doors so we could all feel a much needed bit of joy in this incredibly difficult year. This might have been the first indoor show to open but thankfully it's not the last. We still have a long way to go but this show was a step in the right direction.
Sleepless is playing at the Troubadour Theatre in Wembley Park until September 27th. Tickets are available from https://www.troubadourtheatres.com/wembley-park