x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

When Harry Met Sally comes to Dubai

Gillian Budd, star of the stage version of When Harry Met Sally at Dubai's Madinat Theatre, explains why she is excited and and a little nervous about her role in the ground-breaking romantic comedy.

Remember the scene. Harry and Sally are sitting in a diner chatting about relationships. What follows is one of the most famous episodes in the history of cinematic romantic comedies.

It's hard to believe that it's more than 20 years since Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal created that iconic scene in Katz Diner. At the time the Nora Ephron script was seen as avant garde, exploring as it does the relationship between men and women and posing the question "Can men and women ever just be friends?" but it got people talking.

Themes that now seem commonplace such as "the high-maintenance woman" (one that is basically quite hard work) and the "transitional person" (the one after the big breakup but before the marriage) are explored and the strength of a good female "best-friend" relationship is examined as Sally and her pal Marie work their way through the perilous dating game.

It starts in 1987 when two Chicago University graduates, Harry Burns and Sally Albright, share a car to New York where she is off to journalism school and he's starting work as a lawyer, beginning a 13-year friendship that ends in... well, we all know the ending.

WhenHarry Met Sally opened at Dubai's Madinat Theatre on Tuesday for a two-week run with the West End actors Gillian Budd as Sally and John Cusworth as Harry. When I spoke to her ahead of the run, Scots-born Budd was excited and a little nervous about recreating a role that everybody knows so well. As she launched herself into an intensive three weeks of rehearsals in London before flying out to Dubai she described it as "a little daunting".

"It's also a fantastic challenge. You can't be daunted by that because no one is trying to make a carbon copy of how anybody else did it or just do an imitation. It's brilliant to have an idea of how Meg Ryan did it but you've got to find something in there for yourself," she says.

She's not worried about the slightly racy theme and points out that it's all done in a humorous way.

"It doesn't concern me at all, although it's something I considered when I was asked to come in and do the audition. I've been in Dubai a couple of times and I've never felt the theatre was somewhere that you wouldn't be allowed to do this sort of thing. Obviously the producer and director have considered this and if they think it works I have no qualms about it at all. There's nothing sordid and nothing wrong with it. It's a very true adaptation for the stage and something that will entertain a lot of people."

Budd points to the fact that people know so much about the movie, for example that the director Rob Reiner gave the "I'll have what she's having" line to his mother, the actress Estelle Reiner who died two years ago aged 94. There are also so many famous lines that it's a challenge for the actors to make them sound fresh. "A mix has got to be found between you and the director as to how much you stay true to what everyone is expecting from the film or how the previous actress played it."

The film, based on Reiner's experience of single life after a divorce, won a Bafta and an Oscar nomination for Ephron's witty screenplay along with a Grammy for Harry Connick Jr's soundtrack.

Like many women, Budd sees a lot of herself in Sally, although not her pernickity fussiness over food and how she likes it served. That's when Harry coins the term "high maintenance". Needless to say, Sally doesn't see it that way.

Budd still laughs out loud at the scene when Sally is telling Harry about her ex-boyfriend who is getting married. "The more I do it the more I think it's me. In terms of what she's looking for in life and love and the little paranoias that she has are very similar.

She has a scene where her ex boyfriend moves on and she thinks "Why isn't it me? I don't want to marry him but why doesn't he want to marry me. He told me he didn't want to get married but he just didn't want to marry me. I've been in that situation. That's very typical female."

She says her friends love to come up with their favourite lines from the show and of course everybody loves Harry's big unconditional love speech towards the end.

Budd, who speaks with a soft Scottish burr, has an American accent for the role. She started in local amateur dramatics at the age of five, trotting along in the wake of her elder sister Nicola, but didn't take it seriously until she was in her early teens. "Then when I was at high school my parents took me to see Les Miserables at Edinburgh Playhouse and I went 'Oh right, this is what I want."

As a musical theatre actress she eventually spent two years in Les Miserables understudying the main female parts and appearing as Cosette. A few weeks ago she was part of the 25th anniversary celebrations of Les Miserables at London's O2 arena with Matt Lucas from Little Britain as the innkeeper Thénardier, Alfie Bowe as Jean Valjean, the Broadway star Norm Lewis as Javert and Nick Jonas from the Jonas Brothers playing Marius. "It was absolutely incredible. I'm too old for Cosette now and played one of the women. We did two performances in the O2 that were screened live all around the world. It was the biggest thing I've ever been a part of."

Before that she spent a year in a highly successful play, Enron, about the 2001 bankruptcy of the American energy corporation, starting in Chichester and moving to the Royal Court and later the West End. Budd opened the show singing the Star Spangled Banner. She also starred in a stage version of Educating Rita and in Restoration, based on the Rose Tremain novel.

Budd, who is in her early thirties, has to age 13 years for her role as Sally, who starts the show aged 21 and goes through to 34. It means rushed changes of clothes and hairstyle in the wings as the character progresses. "Those ages are still very much where I am. I'm not going to suddenly come out with a walking stick and wrinkles so it's not too much of a challenge. Backstage there's a bit of running around like a headless chicken and having a really quick costume change with people throwing things at me," she says.

She insists the play, directed by John Payton who also directed her in the stage version of Educating Rita, remains true to the original script.

"I'm not Meg Ryan and John Cusworth's not Billy Crystal but it's what it says on the tin and you will be getting the true When Harry Met Sally. It's one of the best rom-coms ever and it means such a lot to so many people.

"It's a nice twist on the normal fairy tale that some girls have that they're going to meet their prince and instantly fall in love and be happy ever after. It's a more realistic version that 'the one' is coming in and out of your life and it's more hate at first sight than love. It took 13 years to get there."


Madinat Theatre, Dubai, until November 27