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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
When Harry Met Sally
by Lizzie Loveridge

Restaurants are to people in the Nineties what theatre was to people in the Sixtes.
--- Marie
When Harry Met Sally
Luke Perry as Harry and Alyson Hannigan as Sally
(Photo: Alastair Muir)
Theatre Producers: Listen Up! Stage a dramatic production of a well loved film at your peril! When Harry Met Sally joins the long list of hit movies coming to the London stage ready to be savaged by critics who fondly remember the film version; in this case with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan.

Nora Ephron's 1989 film screenplay is known above all else for one iconic scene, where in a crowded restaurant, to convince Harry that women manipulate and sexually flatter men, Sally fakes a very noisy orgasm. However, I think many of this theatre audience may not have seen the film, being teenage fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer which featured, as Willow Rosenburg, Alyson Hannigan, who here makes her stage debut. They gasped and giggled at Perry's bare ass unlike London's nudity tolerant and blasé theatregoers.

Is When Harry Met Sally a theatrical disaster? No it isn't. It is a fun evening in the theatre, a romantic comedy staged, performed and directed rather well by Loveday Ingram.

The new play has been retimed so that it begins in the late 1980s and culminates on the eve of the new millennium as the year 2000 begins. We track the encounters between romantic, quirkily obsessive-compulsive journalist Sally (Alyson Hannigan), who is hoping to meet her perfect man, and top lawyer Harry (Luke Perry). Harry thinks that no friendship is possible between a man and a woman "because the sex part always gets in the way". Harry's life features serial sexual encounters as he dodges commitment. Harry's friend Jack tells us admiringly that Harry once made a woman miaow (but maybe it was a fake miaow?) Marcy Kahan, who has adapted the screenplay for the stage, is convinced that When Harry Met Sally is really a stage play. Using Christopher Hampton's differentiation, a play for theatre dramatises "the slow unfurling of a tightly knit argument" powered by rhetoric while "a screenplay relies on the eloquence of its images."

The play opens to a completely plain white box, with a single, huge, metallic, red heart-shaped balloon floating in space. Imaginatively set in the famous café, gym and bars of Manhattan, the designer has used sliding apertures to divide the stage space, varying its size. Projected oversize maple leaves fall in the autumnal scenes in the park against a surreal blue sky and snow tumbles down in winter. All convey the passing of time. The lighting is particularly effective. In a scene where the guys are watching baseball, their shadows dominate the backdrop and Perry acts with his hands, the shadow of the brim of his baseball cap making him look as daffy as a cartoon duck. The guys' conversation is punctuated with intermittent screams at the sporting action. This is a comedy about the differences between the sexes.

Many of the bit parts are opportunities for good comedy: the other exercise cyclists at the gym working up a sweat but listening to Harry and Sally's conversation; the drunk in the bar who falls off his stool at the end of the scene; the gay table in the café where the arrival of a third man upsets the romantic balance. In between scenes, there are filmed black and white reality TV anecdotes as elderly couples recall their schmaltzy romantic beginnings. These overly "cutesy" filmed titbits, which are meant to a part of Marie's video art installation, start to get very annoying but I suppose they do allow the scene changes to happen behind.

I liked Perry and Hannigan's performances. Hannigan was a bit wobbly in the first scene where she tended to overplay but she soon got into her stride, and a more natural and believable performance was the result. Perry is well cast as the slightly narcissistic but depressive lawyer who gets out of relationships as little as he puts in. Hannigan performs the "orgasm" scene to spontaneous applause but I enjoyed even more the bedroom scene after they make love for the first time, when she looks like the Cheshire cat and Harry looks distinctly uncomfortable as he ponders the consequences of his latest sexual conquest. She gets up after making love to refold his clothes in a tight pile, conveying both her passion for neatness and her homemaking abilities. As a couple they bicker believably. There is good support from Sharon Small as Marie, and Jake Broder as Jack, who are brought along to a match making dinner, Marie by Sally for Harry and Jake by Harry for Sally but who instead find much more in common with each other.

When Harry Met Sally is not cutting edge theatre for those who want to be intellectually challenged, or indeed those who adored the movie. It is, however, a delightful, feel good romantic comedy.

When Harry Met Sally
Written by Nora Ephron
Adapted by Marcy Kahan
Directed by Loveday Ingram

Starring: Luke Perry and Alyson Hannigan
With: Kevin Collins, Sharon Small, Jake Broder, Elizabeth Jasicki, Richard Teverson, Natasha Diot, Cleo Johnson, Peter Swander
Designer: Ultz
Lighting Designer: Nigel Edwards
Sound: John Owens
Projection Design: Jon Driscoll
Movement: Mike Ashcroft
Music by Ben Cullum and Jamie Cullum
Running time: Two hours fifteen minutes with an interval.
Box Office: 0870 901 3356
Booking to 29th May 2004.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 24th February 2004 Performance at the Theatre Royal Haymarket London SW1 (Tube: Piccadilly Circus)
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