The Understudy
When the star drops out of a play about an understudy
waiting in the wings for his moment in the spotlight, it’s almost as if life is
imitating art. In fact, when Stephen Fry jetted off to the US to fulfil more
pressing work commitments, it wasn’t an understudy, but comedian Lee Mack who was
asked to step in at the last minute.

As the narrator, providing a wry commentary on the action, he
made a hesitant start, but settled into the role as the evening went on, culminating
in a hilarious description of a fight scene using a stage prop and a BAFTA as
the weapons of choice. 


The Understudy of the play’s title is actor Stephen McQueen,
(James Norton) who has had an unremarkable career to date, playing roles
ranging from a Rent Boy in The Bill to Sammy the Squirrel. His person life hasn’t
been going too well either: he’s divorced and lives in a tiny flat with no
fridge, his wife has remarried, and he only gets to see his young daughter once
in a while for lunch.  


When he is picked to understudy film star Josh Harper in a
show about the Romantic poet Byron, entitled Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know,
Steve hopes his luck might change. He becomes Josh’s confidante and things
start to look up after he is invited to Josh’s house and meets his charming wife
Nora (Adelayo Adedayo).

Steve quickly strikes up a rapport with Nora, but he is put
on the spot when he accidentally catches Josh and leading lady Maxine in a
compromising position. His loyalties are divided – should he tell Nora the
truth, or accept Josh’s deal, which would give Steve a chance to shine on
stage, provided he keeps the affair secret?

When the underdog finally has his day, it turns out to be
something of an anticlimax. Steve and Nora share an awkward scene as they talk
through their differences, and the play ends on a note of cautious
optimism. 


The Understudy is based on the book by David Nicholls, adapted
by Henry Filloux-Bennett and directed by Giles Croft. The book was written in
2005 and there were  some attempts to
update the script by adding topical references to social distancing, furlough
and that tactless government ad telling creatives “your next job could be in
cyber”.


Reduced in number and socially distanced in a chilly
theatre, wearing masks and mostly keeping coats on for warmth, audience members
were ready to welcome any form of live theatre they could get.   


The play was originally presented online earlier in the
year, with the actors recording their lines individually at home. A semi-staged
rehearsed reading for two nights at the Palace Theatre, in support of UK
theatre, involved a large cast including Mina Anwar, Emily Atak, Lucy
Briggs-Owen, Natalie Casey, Jake Ferretti, Sasha Frost, Mathew Horne, Marie
Lawrence, James McNicholas and Lizzie Muncey.

Proceeds from the performance are to be shared between
several charities including the Theatre Development Trust (SOLT and UK
Theatre), Acting for Others and Equity Charitable Trust, helping people in the
entertainment business who have been affected by the pandemic.