Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London SW1
Opened 20 February, 2004

Marcy Kahan's stage adaptation of Nora Ephron's film script for When Harry Met Sally not only retains the between-scenes video clips of elderly couples recounting how they met, but actually ties them into the main action. In particular, we still get the coda of Harry and Sally giving a synopsis of their own story that we've just witnessed over the preceding two hours. This is a relief, because it shows us the casual screen acting skills of Luke Perry and Alyson Hannigan, and thus justifies the observation that, on stage, they're really not very good at all.

It's particularly glaring in the case of Hannigan. Her work in the American Pie films shows her gift for comedy, and seven years on the TV series Buffy The Vampire Slayer showcased her luminous ability to engage the emotions. But put her in a 900-seat theatre, ask her to project vocally and emotionally so as to fill the space, and she becomes a Hanna-Barbera cartoon of cuteness. As the classic movie's story (boy meets girl, boy never quite gets girl for twelve years, until the very end) progresses, Hannigan cuts out the winsome bounce from her portrayal, but the effortful cuteness never goes.

With Hannigan, I think it's a matter of nerves and unfamiliarity with the form; this is her stage début. Perry, though, makes a fundamental miscalculation in playing Harry. In the film, Billy Crystal's Harry was sort of likeable, but this was a by-product of his sharpness, and somewhat in spit of it; here, Perry tries to use Harry's acerbity and sexual vanity as a route to likeability. He even puppy-dogs the big climactic profession of love. It kills the chemistry between the characters. Far sparkier in this version is the secondary romance between the leads' respective best friends, as played by Sharon Small and Jake Broder, the latter reminiscent of a younger Richard Dreyfuss.

Perry and Hannigan aren't helped by a design that makes this ostentatiously The Play Of The Movie. Designer Ultz plonks everything into a Cinemascope-proportioned box, which somehow makes the invisible "fourth wall" harder to break through than in an ordinary proscenium-arch arrangement. My companion called the design "insane", and I can't really argue. It also means that Loveday Ingram, a more than able director, has to block all the action pretty much in two dimensions. These young screen actors are consequently left with the worst of both worlds, and they simply don't have the stage chops to cope. It's heartbreaking, for all the wrong reasons.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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