Theresa Rebeck’s The Understudy, a masterful piece of contemporary writing, is given its fair dues in Russell Lucas’ captivating production. It is slick, clever, and very funny; and a happy reminder of how when good writing, directing and acting come together, very little is as immediately gratifying as theatre.

I was brought up to the dark, dare I say, cold theatre above the Bridge House Pub. Two dozen half empty seats were arranged around the small space. With a soundtrack of James Bond playing, and with no props aside from a table and two bananas (one of which was unfortunately stepped on and squashed before the show began by a drunken member of the audience) I was not particularly hopeful.

Soon, however, the lights went down on the minimal audience, turned scarlet red. Adele’s ‘Skyfall’ became slow and warped, and Samuel John, as frenzied, failing thespian Harry, entered with a gun.

The stage became an empty broadway stage, a rehearsal space for two actors, Harry and Jake (a superb Leonard Sillevis) and the no-bullshit stage manager, once actress, Roxanne (Emma Taylor). After Bruce, the big movie star, drops out of the undiscovered Kafka masterpiece, Harry replaces John as the understudy, unbeknown to Roxanne, who he jilted six years previously at the altar.

Working against the backdrop of the existential panic of Kafka’s work, the two actors examine the absurdities and ruthlessness of show business in contemporary America. Harry, an actor with ideals and integrity (but without work) goes up against Jake, the comparably very successful but ultimately trapped action movie actor. Hilarious conflicts ensue: from spending twenty minutes arguing about whether Kafka would drink a shot before setting down a tape recorder or after; to chaotic light changes due to the ever absent, marijuana-smoking light designer; to tantrums, and delayed scenes due to traumatic flashbacks. The high energy of the cast and writing ensures there is never a dull moment.

Russell Lucas’ decision to make it in the round, with Stuart Glover’s lighting, combine to evoke the chaotic ‘bowels’ of the broadway superbly. Emma Taylor, aside from several accent hiccups, excels as the apparently robust Roxanne, whose matron-like efficiency just about conceals her vulnerability and disappointments (being left at the altar no doubt being one).

Sillevis, as Jake, brought richness to the character. He honoured the nuances and subtlety of Rebeck’s writing, doing actor-like things (breath exercises, lunges, misunderstanding sarcasm, and inexplicable vanity) but pulling back from ever being too overstated. This lends well to the points in the script when his character comes out with insightful and profound readings into Kafka’s work. It does not appear incoherent with the rest of his character, but simply the emergence of a concealed, albeit surprising dimension.

John, as the confused, failing actor is less convincing in some ways. At times, he seems a little too ridiculous, and perhaps even childish. The past relationship between him and the grown-up Roxanne seems unconvincing. At other times, though, his lack of substance or lack of sense of reality works; and indeed reflects (probably quite successfully) the sort of individual drawn to the discipline of acting.

The Understudy is a wonderful play, and its London debut is one of the best shows I have seen in a long time. The production is brilliant and wholly deserving of a full house.

The Understudy is playing at Canal Cafe Theatre until 11 March.

Photo by Simon Annand