Can Alyson Hannigan fake an orgasm? That’s the unvocalised question that many visitors to When Harry Met Sally, now playing at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, will have in the back of their minds before the curtain rises on the stage adaptation of the Rob Reiner comedy. The answer is that she can — but the trouble is that she fakes Meg Ryan’s.
Like its 1989 film parent, Marcy Kahan’s stage adaptation takes place over a number of years. Nora Ephron’s Oscar®-nominated screenplay remains moderately untouched, save for a few location changes. Whereas Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal form their first impressions of each other on a road trip from Chicago to New York, Alyson Hannigan’s Sally meets Luke Perry’s Harry when he decorates her new Manhattan apartment; their second meeting takes place not on a plane, but in a gym. Ultz’ imaginative stage design, echoing the letterbox proportions of its cinematic progenitor, works more often than it does not. The incidental music, arranged by Ben and Jamie Cullum, is disappointing, with far too much reliance on It Had To Be You.
The two leads need to be as strong as possible, a task not made any easier by the iconic influence of Crystal and Ryan in their roles. Luke Perry rises to the occasion admirably, choosing not to emulate Crystal but provide his own reading of the same script. Hannigan, in her first stage role, ends up looking uncomfortable and stilted in comparison. With a voice lacking in projection (not helped by the acoustics of the Royal, which seems to favour tones deeper than Hannigan’s upper-register nasal delivery), she ends up shouting to compensate. Coupled with her character’s ever-chirpy persona, this makes for an often painful first act, thankfully relieved by the wonderful performances of the supporting cast, particularly Sharon Small and Jake Broder as Marie and Jack, the title characters’ best friends who end up falling for one another.
Indeed, the play suffers from an uneven structure, with the most interesting character developments on all fronts not appearing until well into Act Two. Once she has a range of emotions to play, Hannigan kicks up a gear, showing what she’s really capable of. Even then, though, her performance is rather too similar to Meg Ryan’s, especially when called upon to cry at news of her ex’s impending marriage.
As one would expect from its source material, When Harry Met Sally manages to be an immensely funny play. When it comes to dramatic tensions, though, the uneven pace means that the dilemma and resolution occur far too close together — so the real meat of the play is over almost before it’s begun.
* _Originally reviewed for [Gay.com UK](http://uk.gay.com)_