Sleepless: What is it like going back to the theatre?

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Alastair Muir

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Girls Aloud’s Kimberley Walsh and The Wanted’s Jay McGuiness star in Sleepless

“If you are reading this, then we have succeeded,” reads an introduction from director Morgan Young in the programme for new musical Sleepless.

“You are watching a live theatre performance,” he writes, “and there’s no other experience like it.”

As things currently stand, there is quite literally no other experience like it.

Sleepless is the first, and so far only, indoor theatre show with a full cast to have been staged since the coronavirus outbreak.

The industry has dipped its toe in the water recently with the return of open-air shows, while the Bridge Theatre has staged Talking Heads – a series of solo performances from actors including Tamsin Greig and Imelda Staunton.

But West End theatres are yet to re-open their doors – and it’s only thanks to the modern and spacious nature of the Troubadour Theatre in Wembley that Sleepless has been able to launch this week.

“We’re very lucky that we’re in a modern space,” says Kimberley Walsh, one of the show’s stars. “I mean, look at the height of the ceilings and the size of the foyer – it’s like everything aligned right for us.”

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The foyer of the Troubadour in Wembley Park is more spacious than that of many theatres

It’s true – the venue is ideally suited to the times and there are some extra measures in place to put theatregoers’ minds at rest.

There’s a one way system, hand-sanitising stations, contactless payments at the bar and increased ventilation.

This theatre normally has a capacity of 1,300. But that has been reduced to 400 to allow for social distancing between audience members.

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Audience members are distanced from each other, with many seats out of use

As a result, some seats have big red crosses on them to keep parties separate and ensure people don’t switch to a better seat at the interval (we’ve all done it).

The safety measures aren’t just front of house. Backstage, the members of the live orchestra are socially distanced and separated by screens.

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Alastair Muir

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Transparent screens separate the musicians

Sleepless, which was already in rehearsals when lockdown began, broadly follows the plot of the 1993 film it is based on – Sleepless in Seattle, which starred Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

It tells the story of Sam (played by The Wanted star Jay McGuiness), who is grieving the death of his wife and raising his 10-year-old son Jonah on his own.

After speaking to an agony aunt on a phone-in radio show, he suddenly finds himself one of the most sought-after single men in America.

This catches the attention of Annie (Walsh), a journalist who lives on the other side of the country.

It’s a storyline that is particularly appropriate in the current climate.

“The premise of the show lends itself to the era of social distancing, with a pair of lovers who seldom occupy the same physical space,” noted The Arts Desk’s Marianka Swain.

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Alastair Muir

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Walsh and McGuiness’s characters only have a few scenes together in the show

The pairing of Walsh and McGuiness pleased most critics – although Swain said they “lack the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan quirky charisma that made the journey as fun as the inevitable destination”.

“This production essentially trades off nostalgic affection for Sleepless in Seattle,” she continued.

“Yet there’s also nostalgic joy in simply attending an actual fully-fledged musical, in a theatre, with other people: bliss! Treacly it may be, but this feel-good Sleepless does offer sweet dreams.”

The Daily Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish said the show was “more pleasure than one dared hope for”, awarding it four stars.

“This new musical version of the hit 1993 rom-com rekindles our love of live performance,” he wrote.

“It’s stodgy, but this musical adaptation of Sleepless in Seattle feels like a sweet treat in showbiz-starved times,” wrote Nick Curtis of the Evening Standard.

“There is something mad and brilliant about turning an American classic film into a musical in a big shed in Wembley in the middle of a pandemic. It is a joy to watch McGuiness take Walsh’s hand and whirl her around in the finale.”

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Alastair Muir

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Cast members are tested for coronavirus every morning

During the performance the characters are seen hugging, holding hands and dancing together – which is allowed thanks to a rigorous testing process among the cast, which McGuinness explains involves them getting a nose swab every morning.

“We’re all tested every day, so we know we’re in a safe environment,” explains Walsh. “We don’t have to socially distance but we still go to extreme lengths to put masks on, just because we’re literally adding every layer of protection that we can.”

Audience members have to wear masks in the auditorium and – in a demonstration of both excellent branding and exemplary public safety- Sleepless visors are also available at the theatre.

An usher explains, however, these are to be worn in addition to masks, rather than as a substitute for them.

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Sleepless-branded visors are available to audience members

While rehearsing and performing might feel like business as usual, performing to a depleted audience certainly doesn’t.

In normal times, a theatre that’s less than half full would be cause for concern. At Sleepless, though, that constitutes a sold-out show.

“If it was a Girls Aloud or The Wanted concert, having people not chock-a-block together, front to back, would be quite disappointing,” McGuiness notes.

“But theatre has a certain formality that means that sort of spread is fine, and we got used to it quite quickly.

“The laughs are still where they’re meant to be, the applause is still where it’s meant to be, and we don’t rely on the audience to be whooping and hollering through the whole thing.

“It’s a performance. So I would hate to be The Wanted or Girls Aloud right now.”

“You couldn’t do it, could you?” Walsh chips in. “That’s why it’s going to take so long really, for live music acts to come back.”

Sleepless is at the Troubadour Theatre in Wembley Park until 27 September.

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