The name of Above the Stag’s latest musical is designed, of course, to remind one of Rob Reiner’s famed romantic comedy film, When Harry Met Sally (while hopefully not evoking too much of the Theatre Royal Haymarket’s stage adaptation).
Like the film it’s trying to evoke, this is a romantic comedy – but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. For a start, the title is misleading: the meeting between the two titular characters is in fact a reunion, the two men once having been schoolfriends who fooled around with each other.
Barry (Craig Rhys Barlow) is now a successful TV chef who forms a relationship with over-the-top scene queen Spencer (an adorably likeable performance from Aiden Crawford), while Harry (Wesley Dow) gets involved with bookshop girl Alice (lightly delivered by Holly Julier, the best performance of the evening).
Both couples’ burgeoning relationships are conducted under the watchful eye of guardian angel Betty Blue, played by Madeleine MacMahon as a combination of Cupid, Marje Proops and Su Pollard (herself an Above the Stag press night stalwart). In her eyes, though, things start to go wrong when Harry and Barry bump into each other and find themselves falling for each other, while not wanting to hurt the ones they’re with.
Fiona Stewart’s lo-fi set, consisting of line drawings on rotating flats, gives a nice impressionistic feel as long as you don’t look too closely. Directorially, Tim McArthur knows how to create choreography that doesn’t overpower the ATS’s small space, but his decision for both couples to play out their budding romances at extreme ends of the stage creates a gulf for the audience as well as for the pairings.
Adding to the difficulties on the night I attended was the sound level of the musical accompaniment. Musical director Lee Freeman’s keyboard, set at the opposite end of the stage to where I was sitting, drowned out any vocals of performers who were nearer him than me.
As for the play itself, Paul Emelion Daly (who wrote the book, music and lyrics) is no Nora Ephron when it comes to romantic comedy. It’s pleasant enough, but there are no big laughs and the musical numbers feel slight throughout.