Theatre reviews: Beat the Devil and Sleepless, A Musical Romance

Live theatre is back, and these two very different productions prove its worth


Beat the Devil

Bridge Theatre


Sleepless, A Musical Romance

Troubadour Theatre


This week marks theatre’s fightback in earnest. Two shows have opened, each important for what they attempt to achieve, both significant for being the first shows with a significant run to be staged indoors since playhouses went dark in March.

While at Nicholas Hytner’s Bridge Theatre David Hare’s autobiographical monologue performed by Ralph Fiennes, reflects the pandemic, at Wembley’s hangar-like Troubadour theatre, a new musical based on Nora Ephron’s 1993 movie Sleepless in Seattle provides an escape from it.

With much of its seating ripped out to accommodate social distancing, the Bridge Theatre show does for the Covid crisis what Hare’s Stuff Happens did for the Iraq war or his The Permanent Way did for the deadly Potters Bar railway crash, that is, to offer the public a way of processing traumatic events by holding those responsible up to the glare of stage lighting.

The difference with this one is that Hare needed to do little research. Having caught Covid, he is able to charge the government with the crime of incompetence while at the same time documenting the effect of the pathogen on his 73-year-old body. In that sense, Hare is lucky to have the 57-year-old Fiennes, casually dressed in blue linen shirt and dark denim jeans, play him.

Fiennes has become a particularly fine actor in middle-age. There is something more accessible, perhaps less precious, about the star who first became known for such serious-minded films as Schindler’s List and The English Patient. Perhaps that’s what being M to Daniel Craig’s Bond does to an actor.

In Hytner’s simply staged production he segues between the personal and the political with self-effacing charisma. Sharing the stage with a writing desk, his version of Hare is bemused by a little-known symptom of the virus that makes everything taste like sewage.

Hare’s account is laced with guilt for being white and middle-class which meant that he was more likely to survive the scourge than many of his fellow non-white poorer victims of Covid. There is, though, no mention of Jewish vulnerability to Covid, which perhaps might have muddied the focus on social injustice.

Politically the target is the government, who are an affront to the insult of “mediocre” he says, because the term describes a middling capability which Johnson and especially his cabinet show no signs of reaching.

Meanwhile, the virus rages on through the UK’s care homes and in Hare’s body climaxes by giving its host a temperature of 40 degrees before dipping so low his wife Nicole (Farhi) lies on top of him in an attempt to keep him warm. She has yet to fully grasp the notion of social distancing, says Fiennes’s Hare wryly.

There are few if any observations that are revelatory about Covid-19 in Britain. There is, though, something comforting and defiant about such a familiar theatrical voice being heard on a stage once again. Something similar could be said of Sleepless, A Musical Romance.

Kimberley Walsh and Jay McGuinness take on the roles of Sam and Annie (Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in the film). In Morgan Young’s slick, if emotionally inert, production they are pleasant enough to watch.

The show was only a few days away from opening when theatres were closed down. If it had opened back then, I would have give the jazzy score by two new British writers Robert Scott and Brendan Cull a cautious thumbs-up but for the attempts to parody Cole Porter, or the bits of script that are awkwardly unfunny compared to the joyous fizz of the original.

But that was then. This is now, in the pandemic, when a show providing proper, if uneven, entertainment, is like gold dust.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive