On Tuesday 2 December, JW3 brings Rob Reiner's effortless romcom When Harry Met Sally to the live on stage as part of the Jewish Comedy Festival. Canadian-born actor Kerry Shale plays Harry and tells Judi Herman all about playing the famous role.
"I guess I've seen it four or five times! But I'm watching the DVD in case there's anything in the script that needs clarification." Kerry Shale is giving me the low down on his preparation for playing the eponymous Harry in the staged reading of the iconic film script. "We're not updating it. The original was pretty much written for Billy Crystal and he came up with some of his own lines because he's such a genius comedian, such as: 'I'll have what she's having'. Nora Ephron gives him credit for it in the introduction to the printed script."
I venture that it must be like taking a jump at the Grand National running up to that line – everyone is waiting for it. "Yeah exactly! There's a lot of really famous lines in the film. But I'm going to treat it a bit like I did when I played the Woody Allen part in Play It Again Sam years ago on stage. Allen wrote that for himself, so I basically used the Woody Allen accent and played the character like Woody Allen, but filtered through me. So I think I"ll be playing Harry like Billy Crystal filtered through Kerry Shale, certainly not a slavish recreation but there's certain ways to time some of these lines, and there's only one way to deliver them."
Is it a particularly Jewish sort of story? "It wouldn't have been such a huge breakaway hit if it had only spoken to Jews and Jewish sensibilities. And I think they very cleverly disguise Harry's Jewishness, so you and I and most Jewish people would recognise that he was Jewish but I don't think your average filmgoer recognised that." Shale tells me how he said to the production team that "it's the story of a Jewish boy who meets a non Jewish girl. They said 'What do you mean?' They were completely flummoxed by that, it had never occurred to them. Harry doesn't mention being Jewish, the Jewish holidays – they eat at Katz's, but then so does everyone in New York! Sally on the other hand is very clearly not Jewish. In the introduction Nora Ephron, who is obviously Jewish, says that Sally was based on her. She takes all her stuff on the side, she always has her mayo on the side. I think it may have been the casting of Meg Ryan that set the seal on that, probably they wrote her Jewish too but by casting Meg Ryan she became non-Jewish."
I venture that I think her casting makes it stronger, which brings us on to the casting of the script reading. His Sally is the hugely versatile, funny woman Morwenna Banks, also currently high-profile on TV as the voice of Peppa Pig's mother. Shale explains that the line up of six also includes Debbie Chazen – recently seen with Shale at JW3 in the revival of the highly successful Listen, We're Family – and Michael Mears, a good friend of Shale's in real life, who both play Sally and Harry's best friends, respectively. "And we've got a wonderful pianist called Duncan Wisbey who's going to be narrating, reading all the stage directions and also be playing numbers like 'It had to be you' sitting at the grand piano so you'll get a little bit of Harry Konick Junior."
The delightful and imaginative addition of video clips of various real-life couples talking about how they met will make the evening truly original, among them the parents of Jewish Renaissance Editor Rebecca Taylor. Shale says: "It'll make it very much at home at JW3 and will make it a very special evening for the people involved. And the audience will recognise even more how universal the story is that deals with these themes of finding a good life partner."
We agree that it seems to be creating a sort of JW3 tradition, building on the way Listen, We're Family celebrated real life stories on stage, transmuting real life into something very special. "It's what they intended to do originally in the film," reveals Shale, "but they could not quite find the right people to give the right feel and so they ended up getting actors who gave very naturalistic performances, but delivered lines written by Nora Ephron. This evening is different because it is a celebration of When Harry Met Sally, so a lot of people will know a lot of the lines, but they won't know the lines of the couples who will be delivering their own stories!"
The icing on the (wedding) cake is that the whole evening is directed by Bill Dare, whose credits include TV's legendary Spitting Image. It really does sound unmissable!
By Judi Herman
When Harry Met Sally – The Live Read Through will be on Tuesday 2 December. 8pm. £12. JW3, 341-351 Finchley Rd, NW3 6ET; 020 7433 8989. www.jw3.org.uk