Writer: Henry Filloux-Bennett
Director: Giles Croft
While stage plays may still be out of bounds, The Understudy, a radio play about stage plays, comes at the perfect time. However, this slick production shouldn’t be seen as a make-do second best alternative, but as an event on its own terms. Just look at the cast list, for a start.
Stephen Fry, Sarah Hadland and Russell Tovey are the leads in this comedy drama based on the novel by David Nicholls and adapted by Henry Filloux-Bennett, who also brought Nigel Slater’s Toast to the stage. Fry, tongue firmly in cheek as usual, narrates the winning tale of a jobbing actor who gets the chance to perform in a star-studded play about Lord Byron, but only as the understudy. However, Stephen McQueen, played with customary boyishness and charm by Tovey, hopes that somehow his understudy role could lead to bigger things.
Mad, Bad and Dangerous To Know is going straight to West End and is being directed not quite by Ivo van Hove, but someone like him who was behind an artsy seven-hour epic staged on the top storey of a car park. But the main draw is Josh Harper, an actor tipped to be the new James Bond, and in Jake Ferretti’s hands Josh is suitably arrogant, and pretentious, and Ferretti cleverly alerts the listener to the fact that Josh is also a terrible actor.
Sarah Hadland plays Stephen’s ex-wife Alison, and it’s delightful to hear echoes of Stevie, Miranda’s best friend, as she despairs of her ex-husband’s talent. There is one touching scene where Stephen takes his precocious seven-year-old daughter out for the afternoon, but she announces that she wants to go straight home after Pizza Express where she’d much rather have the marinated green olives than the dough balls.
While Stephen’s backstory is interesting, the play is the thing here, and as opening night for the Byron bio nears, our hero finds himself caught in a web of intrigue involving, Josh’s co-star, Maxine (played by Emily Attak) and Josh’s wife, Nora (Sheila Atim). Could Stephen somehow take advantage of the situation and become the star of the show for one night?
With cameos by the likes of Layton Williams (from Everyone’s Talking About Jamie) the 70 minutes fly by, and despite the occasional swear word, the gentle is humour and there are plenty of in-jokes to keep the theatre crowd happy. The sound design by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite, Annie May Fletcher and Sophie Galpin is clear, and the London locations – swanky Shoreditch apartments and Soho Square offices – are represented with ease. There’s enough in Part One to make you want to tune into Part Two.
All proceeds from the play go to good causes, and for only £5 it’s incredibly good value. And if you want, instead of looking at a blank screen, there’s an optional download with an animation of steaming coffee or auditoriums to set the scenes, but for some, used to listening to Radio 4, this might come as a distraction. The Understudy is the perfect accompaniment to some lockdown cooking.
Available to buy here from 20 May 2020