Apparently, playwright Henry Filloux-Bennett and director Giles Croft were working on mounting a regular production of The Understudy when the coronavirus arrived and changed everything. Nothing daunted they switched tracks and have produced a delightful two-part-audio version of David Nicholls’ early novel, pleasingly updated and full of great laugh aloud moments about the life of an actor in the business we call “show”.
Stephen McQueen (definitely no relation) is in his early thirties with a divorce behind him and a career that has stalled; his last big part was as a squirrel in a touring kid’s show but finally he has been cast in a role in the West End… well sort of. Under interrogation from his ex-wife Alison it gradually emerges that he is to play The Mask Of Death in a play about Byron called Mad, Bad And Dangerous To Know. Basically, this involves opening and closing a stage door and gesturing to the dying Byron to enter the land of the dead. More importantly he is to understudy Josh, a preening young celebrity actor, brought in as star casting to play the lead (think Kit Harrington in Dr Faustus a couple of years back). Stephen and Josh form an alliance of convenience – for the latter anyway – the Byron play goes on but backstage dramas involving Josh’s philandering threaten to intrude.
The fun of this production is in the delightful level of detail that punctuates the action. There are lots of in jokes about the theatrical world with some delightful digs at actors, directors, the rehearsal process, theatrical agents, critics and the trend for site specific theatre. This is all aided and abetted by the deliciously rounded and confidential tones of narrator Stephen Fry who does a fabulous job of bringing his sections to life. Russell Tovey, playing Stephen, has a lovely hangdog quality to his delivery and a slightly world weary air of resignation about the character’s situation which has us rooting for him. Tovey shows particular and very impressive technical skill in manipulating a sliding accent in one of the funniest scenes of the play. If you are in the theatrical world you will both laugh at and sympathise with his predicament. And if you’re not there’s plenty of comedy to be found in the shifting personal relationships which form the second strand of the narrative. There’s also a side plot about Stephen’s growing relationship with estranged daughter Sophie (Meredith Stanbury) which doesn’t really add much. However, it does provide some delightful commentary about how he has failed to grow up while she has preferences which are distinctly more adult - she chooses green olives over dough balls in Pizza Express.
The rest of the cast are pretty top notch. Jake Ferretti’s Josh is a monster in the making prepared to do whatever it takes to stay at the top and there are hints that he realises he may not have long in the spotlight of fame. I felt the female characters were less well served by the script but Sheila Atim (Nora), Emily Atack (Maxine) and, especially Sarah Hadland as ex-wife and confidante Alison, all show great skill in delineating character through their voices alone. Beyond these there are some highly delightful characterisations by Layton Williams as journalist Levi, Mina Anwar as stage manager Donna and Lizzie Muncie as director (and pain in the neck) Zuly. Best of all is hapless/ hopeless theatrical agent Frank, played with relish by James McNicholas.
The sound design by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite, Annie May Fletcher and Sophie Galpin is clear and focused and the dialogue comes across as clear and crisp. I assume tracks were recorded separately and edited together so it’s good to see (or rather hear) that the production has plenty of pace. The music underscoring did become a bit intrusive at times. As an added extra you can download a version which includes a visual element. If you think of slightly animated book illustrations delineating scene locations you will understand what is being attempted. Although this gives the project a USP, I didn’t find it all that necessary. I was just as content to shut my eyes and let imagination do the rest. The Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield are hosting this project and are already working on a follow up in a similar vein. This time it will be Filloux-Bennett’s adaptation of Nigel Slater’s memoir Toast which played around the country last year to critical acclaim; I’ll have a slice of that!