Writer: Henry Filloux-Bennett
Director: Giles Croft
Warning: contains spoilers of Episode One
When we left actor Stephen McQueen at the end of Part One, he was understudying superstar Josh Harper in the much-anticipated premiere of the Byron story Mad, Bad and Dangerous to know and, knowing of Josh’s affair with his co-star, had agreed to stay quiet in order to secure one night in the lead role. Now,the Lawrence Bately Theatre in Huddersfield brings us Part Two of Henry Filloux-Bennett’s adaption of The Understudy.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of this radio play are the plethora of theatre in-jokes and exaggerations that will resonate so well if you have spent enough time in theatres. From the humble bragging of the lead actor giving notes to his colleagues to the nod to real life former Times critic Ann Treneman breaking ranks to give the fictional play 2* in a blanket of 5* reviews, you’ll listen to much of this with a wry smile on your face – especially the glowing but fantastical comparisons between Josh and Richard Burton which no reviewer would ever really write.
But it is the tricky personal relationships that dominate this second section of the story with the growing intimacy between Russell Tovey’s Stephen and Josh’s wife Nora played by Sheila Atim, as Stephen takes his chance at fame. The fact he gets to go on in the lead role may be no surprise, but the circumstances of his big break are not quite what you expect based on Part One.
In fact, the rest of The Understudy starts to ask some interesting questions about Stephen’s own ruthlessness, and while it works hard to keep you on his side, the hapless actor is far more calculating than even he would like to acknowledge. The laidback attitude to life, to family and especially to the art of acting suggested a man who wanted fame but thought it was all a bit stupid, yet in Part Two, caught-up in Josh’s orbit, Stephen manages to betray his true friends while using dirty tricks to make a play for the lead role with an ill-advised phone call.
There is a sitcom charm to Filloux-Bennett’s adaptation, using Stephen Fry’s knowing narration to give context to scenes as well as moving the time on. At just 55-minutes it covers a lot of ground, sometimes in too little depth especially in the final section as Stephen understands the consequences of his success, but the central characters come vividly to life while the politics of the theatre are all too recognisable.
Russell Tovey is a casual Stephen, desperate for a big break but worn down by continual rejection and never getting his hopes up. This placidity is tested by his attraction to Nora and Tovey’s Stephen seems almost to surprise himself when he takes a darker route to upgrading his understudy position in a variety of accents! Jake Ferretti is also particular good as the egregious Josh, smarming his way around the Company, emotionally blackmailing Stephen, his wife Nora and his lover Maxine, while happily selling out anyone who crosses his ego.
Part-Two of The Understudy examines the consequences of a Faustian deal with the devil, one that the protagonist thinks will give him everything he desires, only not quite as he expects. The compete show is a lot of fun and next time your favourite movie star appears in the West End, maybe spare a thought for what is really going on backstage.
Available here from 27 May 2020