The Understudy: Part 2 begins with an incredibly useful replay of the key moments from Part One, including flashes of the beautifully detailed animations and clips of conversations. I really like this choice as it gives the storytelling an anecdotal and casual style. It almost feels like a friend getting you back up to speed with what has been going on. This warm atmosphere and light tone is, for me, the strength of the play.
Back again in Part Two is Stephen’s agent on top comic form. Keeping Stephen waiting to see him, he apologises saying: ‘see you in a couple of shakes of a squirrel’s tail’. This is a brilliant nod to Stephen’s biggest success, Sammy the Squirrel, which is now apparently a hit in Eastern Europe and generating massive royalties of £400 a year. Stephen’s agent is particularly excellent in his looseness with the truth, suggesting that Stephen can speak fluent Russian. For me, a stand out moment of this conversation is his highlighting of a role at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, who commissioned this piece; it is a quick and witty Easter Egg.
This part is faster paced, understandably, than Part One and allows for lots of brilliant exchanges between pairs of characters. My favourite scene involves Josh coaching Stephen on his portrayal of Byron. Josh employs a very Joey Tribbiani approach to dramatic pauses, saying that he counts ‘a few candelabras’ before he starts and employs phrases such as ‘Byron is all cock and no heart’, which is interesting phrasing and almost certainly true.
Of course this part of the story is where everything unravels for Stephen after he reports Josh’s affair to the papers and gets himself into a skirmish with Josh, which involves a wooden rapier. But he does, by some miracle, get his one night as Byron. The majority of the audience cancel when they find out that Josh is not performing and of the 11 that come, only 8 are left after the interval. None of this matters though, Josh just hopes that his ex-wife and daughter will finally be proud of him – if they come that is.
A quick and witty second half of this radio drama is brought together through stunning animations and an incredibly high quality cast of performers. The story does at points seem to have a hint of melodrama, but Tovey’s Stephen is so earnest that you can’t help but want him to do well despite his flaws and his setbacks, most important of which is his mediocre (at best) acting ability.
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