The Understudy explores the life of an underdog in the theatre. Stephen McQueen – ‘no relation’ to the Hollywood Star – is a middling actor recently out of a role as Sammy the Squirrel, in a show aimed at an average age of four, but now he lands his big break: a role in a play with the BAFTA-winning Josh Harper. ‘What part are you?’ everybody asks. Stephen doesn’t want to say that he’s Harper’s understudy.
The Understudy is a radio play, and so of course it needs a narrator, and what could be better for this than the smooth-as-caramel tones of Stephen Fry. Russell Tovey is the affable Stephen, who so longs for his breakout role, and, most importantly, make his seven year old daughter respect him by getting a ‘real job’.
Henry Filloux-Bennett’s adaptation of David Nicholls 2005 novel is witty and sharp, whilst also being delightfully easy listening – perfect for a warm evening with a glass of cold wine or a soft drink if that’s your jam.
The scenes are accompanied by beautiful animations that look like visions through a frosted glass window, as if you’re watching from just outside. Particularly brilliant is the image for the Pizza Express scene where the menu is blurred out, but the tell-tale blue water glasses and faux marble table tops are a dead-giveaway.
In a radio play you are so reliant on the narrator to tell you where you are, and this addition makes the storytelling and scenes so much more vivid. Also, these transitioning images break the story into amusing vignettes and create a quick and light-hearted pace.
Despite being recorded in isolation, the dialogue between the actors is this radio plays’ strength, as the lines are fast-paced, and often reactionary, and the stellar cast bounce off each other in an incredibly naturalistic way; especially impressive since they are recording separately.
A particularly amusing conversation takes place between Stephen and his daughter in the aforementioned Pizza Express. Against Stephen’s wishes, Sophie has been sent to private school and, rather amusingly, the effects of her schooling show when she orders ‘a small glass of sparkling water, no ice’ and feels miffed when Pizza Express don’t do sushi, to which Stephen responds ‘even Japanese children don’t like Sushi’.
This story has everything: we root for the underdog, hate the big star who has an ego even bigger than his BAFTA, and so very much want the Dad to finally prove himself to his daughter. It is simple in some ways, but that’s part of the magic of this warm and witty comedy, full of heart. Bring on Part Two.
The Understudy is available to watch on the Lawrence Batley Theatre’s website and proceeds go to Acting for Others, the Equity Charitable Trust, Equity’s Benevolent Fund and The Theatre Development Trust