Did you know that you can point out actors at a party because they will harmonize when singing Happy Birthday? Expect more thrusts on The Ivy scene, people boring others with their knowledge about Japanese whiskey while quoting from Notting Hill for unrequested aspiration – enter the world of struggling actor Stephen. Failing to bond with his 7-year-old daughter who is confidently keeping their allocated time shorter and shorter, he understands he is approaching his mid-30s fast without a career-defining moment (or fridge) to his name. Stephen feels the pressure from all sides – especially from his close-by ex-wife and her new partner, who are the kind of Chiswick people guaranteed to have a bottle of champagne in the house at all times, just in case an occasion comes up demanding a celebration.
In fear of having to tour provincial theatres nationwide in a kids’ TV characters’ onesie or to be stuck in Islington’s pub theatre scene (hang on, London‘s pub theatres are all great!), he accepts yet another understudy job of a famous film star recently voted the 12st sexiest man in the world (his daughter is a fan), playing Lord Byron on a major West End stage. Lead and understudy get along well, and Stephen befriends his new mate’s American partner. Being constantly reminded of the importance of the understudy feels good – until it becomes clearer that the lead plans to pull plenty of sickies to spend time with his mistress away from London. For Stephen a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity opens which could mean the breakthrough and media attention he always dreamt of and desperately needs to keep his spirits and finances in order. A great deal is made of the deals we do… “Hold your thought, Stephen”, addresses narrator Stephen Fry the protagonist – I would have happily heard of more from Mr. Fry. But listen for yourself how this moral dilemma is being dealt with by someone not good at making decisions at all.
The Understudy is a vivid and ironic city break to the wonderful, glamourous pre-Corona London we all miss, based on David Nicholl’s novel from 2005 which is a theatre industry’s favourite (and championing to become my first commute read when all of this is over). And for less than a trip to the coffee shop you have now saved on for weeks, for less than a pint in West London, you’ll contribute to the scene you love. “So is theatre the future for you?” is a question with a very different emphasis nowadays. And that’s probably why so many major TV and film personalities agreed to take part in The Understudy, to raise money and awareness of those having always focussed their dream in a gig economy no longer able to operate in traditional terms.
Ever counted the bus stops between Soho Square and Holloway Road? It would be fun to listen to this audio play on a lengthy bus journey through the capital, but this will have to wait. While I listened to these amusing two hours of head cinema (ear theatre actually, but visuals are available), I had a coffee or two on the sofa, washed up, hung the laundry up, completed my Ravensburger Exit Puzzle and wondered how I can use #badbadbyron for an audio play hopefully reviving the genre: For those lucky enough to work from home nowadays, more screen time is not the answer.
When I was asked to review an audio play, I felt responsible and thrilled to help. More of this please – or let me quote straight from The Understudy: “Put the fun(k) back into functional!”
**** out of 5 stars
Written by Henry Filloux-Bennett (based on the novel by David Nicholls), directed by Giles Croft, Sound and Music by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite, Annie May Fletcher and Sophie Galpin
The Understudy is an online play – part radio play, part animated film, released in two parts for a limited time.
In December 2020 a semi-staged rehearsed reading to support UK theatre took place at the Palace Theatre in London’s West End. Stephen Fry joined the cast among others.