An investor should snap up this weepy musical: Sleepless reviewed

12 September 2020

9:00 AM

12 September 2020

9:00 AM

The Taming of the Shrew

Roman Theatre, St Albans


Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre, until 27 September

It has roughly the same proportions as Shakespeare’s Globe. The Roman Theatre in Verulamium (St Albans) is an atmospheric ruin with low flint walls, a banked rampart and a single stone column. Historians estimate that the circular space, measuring about 40 yards in diameter, would have enabled 7,000 spectators to watch plays, gladiatorial contests and executions. That figure seems too high. A capacity of 1,500 might be nearer the mark. These days the venue hosts outdoor theatre. Playgoers who sit at the edge of the auditorium can reach out and touch the ancient flint walls and run their fingers across the grain of the Roman concrete.

During the August cold snap I watched The Taming of the Shrew, by Folksy Theatre, under an ominous grey sky. Mild drizzle was pattering on our heads as the cast entered the stage. Kate and Bianca played violins to summarise the plot. Bianca sweetened the air with tuneful melodies while Kate tried to sabotage her sister’s efforts by thrashing out harsh aggressive phrases. They ended up physically fighting each other. Comic brutality was the production’s theme. Three times Kate was hurled off the stage by her rough-and-ready suitor.

Lee Cameron, a willowy blonde, gave a convincing account of Kate’s spoiled-brat rages and mood swings. Stuart Scott’s Petruchio relied a little too heavily on tummy-rubbing and groin-thrusting gestures. It’s a tough part to get right because he’s undoubtedly a swine and a brute but he’s blessed with a measure of innocent, self-centred charm. Scott prioritised his likeability over his sadism.

After 90 minutes the gentle shower raised its game and began to fall in chilly sheets direct from Orkney. The playgoers held firm, crouching under umbrellas and tucking their shivering legs beneath their seats. Brave picnickers on the muddy banks sipped their beers and nibbled their sandwiches as if enjoying a warm evening in July. The actors endured the nippy monsoon without missing a beat. And as soon as the play ended, so did the waterworks.

The Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre has opened its doors to a new musical, Sleepless, based on the 1993 movie Sleepless in Seattle. The venue observed every Covid restriction known to man but there were strange consequences.

I was given directions by a Spanish usherette wearing a mouth-covering and a face visor whose accent I couldn’t understand. Why? Because lip-reading — a key component in spoken communication — wasn’t possible. Inside the auditorium, I encountered the barmy world of ‘social distancing’. I was placed in row H and I counted five empty seats between me and my closest neighbour. Yet I was barely a couple of feet from the chap diagonally ahead of me in row G. This is nonsense. The theatre should increase its capacity by 20 per cent immediately. No one will complain. Punters who feel ‘at risk’ should get a refund. Who would claim one? The government could reopen the West End within weeks if they set up this financial backstop.

As for the show itself, it follows the woes of a handsome insomniac, Sam, whose wife has just died. Sam lives on a houseboat in Seattle and he mopes on deck all night staring at the horizon. His son, Jonah, tricks him into sharing his grief with a national radio host and suddenly every woman in America wants to marry him. A male fantasy, clearly.

Sacks full of letters start to arrive but only one mentions Jonah. This, of course, ruins the story by announcing the victor before the contest has properly started. The composer of the winning letter, Annie (Kimberley Walsh), is a saintly blonde with a rigid hairdo and a taste for the sort of piercing blue daywear favoured by Mrs Thatcher. Annie is hard to get a handle on. More intriguing is the interim romance between Sam and a hot redhead, Victoria, who has a comically grating laugh.

She hates Jonah on sight and the feeling is mutual. That sounds promising! But this combustible threesome isn’t allowed to develop because Sam is destined to hook up with the frosty blonde.

In the movie, the physical distance between the lead characters doesn’t matter, but on stage their separation becomes frustrating. Only in the closing moments do they meet, and so the show ends just as the real drama is about to start. However, ignore these quibbles. I’m not the target market here. Musical weepies such as this are popular with theatre producers because they create cycles of attendance. Women go and see them multiple times and when they become mothers they pass the habit on to their daughters. Later they become grannies, and so on. I was neither moved nor intrigued by this show but it was well acted, nicely presented and it boasted a couple of decent tunes. That’ll do the trick. If I were an investor I’d jump right in.

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