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Fringe Online 2020

The Understudy

The Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield

Genre: Comedy, New Writing, Online Theatre, Theatre

Venue: The Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield Online

Festival: ,

Low Down

Directed by Giles Croft and brought to life by the sound and design team Alexandra Faye Braithwaite, Annie May Fletcher and Sophie Galpin. Till June 27th.


‘No not that Steve McQueen’ punctuates this affable comedy. David Nicholl’s hymn to his own acting failure is studded with gross and subtle insights through one-liners in this adaptation of his second novel The Understudy – before even starrier novels and screenplays made him far happier to be writing. The bittersweet tang of a misery lived though gives this work something to relish sadly.

Henry Filloux-Bennett was adapting it for The Lawrence Batley Theatre Huddersfield before lockdown and this brave venture utilizes lockdown conditions so actors can record their parts and the team splice it together with sound effects and producing – remarkably – a perfect radio drama.

Directed by Giles Croft and vivified by the sound and design team Alexandra Faye Braithwaite, Annie May Fletcher and Sophie Galpin it’s indistinguishable from a fine Radio 4 production: actors in studios, effects liberally applied.

It comes up as fresh as a Simon Brett/Jeremy Front Charles Paris mystery: without murder. Is that a spoiler? A near-murder then? Nicholl under the name of David Holdaway never got his break but his life spins theatrical gold thread: into a plausible yarn.

The Understudy isn’t quite the fine new lockdown Zoom theatre: it features two hour-long halves again, like the radio serial it effectively is. There’s a strange animation available but unless you’ve never heard a radio play in your life it’s a fancy too far and might damage your imagination.

Narrated with his avuncular wink by Stephen Fry for prologues and intervals, The Understudy’s a play designed for theatre-lovers, people who care about the industry and will do what they can for it and pay to be entertained.

We open in the family home of struggling actor Stephen McQueen’s… (no relation x 20) ex-wife (Mina Anwar) now married to Colin the sensible banker, and visiting for a cheery roast in their plush squeaky-clean environment where his one cheerleader, as he never suspects for quite a while is his daughter. Russell Tovey makes an appealing slightly lost dad, ever so slightly despised enough to be told to give up and get a proper job.

Still…Whilst McQueen’s waiting for his spotlight, he reflects on his career – one spanning (non-speaking) Rent Boy 3 in The Bill to recently starring as Sammy in the (low-budget) regional tour of Sammy The Squirrel’s Seriously Silly Safari – opportunity barges in.

Stephen’s just landed a West End role. Well… as his ex swiftly discerns understudying film star (and 12th Sexiest Man in the World) Josh Harper in the premiere of a Byron biopic: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know. What McQueen does is simply bow and usher the soul of Byron into the underworld. And the director doesn’t believe in his motivation.

Jake Ferretti makes something raffishly narcissistic of Josh, an actor capable of a caddish darkness – and not much else but looking cute. Still got him a BAFTA (is this the only play where a BAFTA becomes a prop and plot-point in one?). Ferretti’s good at hinting both matinee smoothie and a thoroughly nasty edge. When he befriends Steven he’s asking him to his birthday party: to serve drinks.

Except Steven meets Nora, Josh’s American wife: smarter, bankrolling… but. Sheila Atim’s superficially brittle sophisticate nurses a vulnerable jaded love for Josh. Tovey conveys that lost dog-like feeling of falling upwards into infatuation just as Ferretti makes him an unbelievable offer: to go on for a few days instead of him.

No altruism here: the irritatingly decent Steven has seen Josh with sultry leading lady Maxine (Emily Atack); they’re clearly having an affair and Atack ensures we realize a certain grasping insecurity: and a touch of Josh’s narcissism. Both initially treat Steven little better than the adoring director does, to whom Steven is something she caught on her shoe.

Steven, having had a wife leave him is a bit unbelievably prudish about infidelity considering his profession. But then perhaps he’s in love too. When getting closer to Atim’s Nora she asks him if there’s anything going on – he’s in a quandary.

Atim captures Nora’s mix of clever-but-hurt with loyalty prone to break into pieces. The chemistry’s not very believable on paper but Atim and Tovey make it touchingly fragile.

Sarah Hadland’s ASM is a fun part, the cheery coper with a steely sense of who’s in, who’s definitely out. Layton Williams’ seedy agent is another character you’d expect out of Charles Paris. Overall though Tovey has the lion’s part (if rather like Parsley the Lion from The Herb Garden) everyone relishes their not-quite-stereotypical roles. It’s a satisfying romp with some bitter little twists to make it believable.

Voice matches are less problematic for this writer than some. Technically it’s a quite stunning achievement: a fight-scene strictly offstage is superbly handled. Do catch it, and match the feelgood cost with nudging theatres towards opening night.