On theatre website
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”. Having immersed myself in one radio drama this week (Anno Domino by Alan Ayckbourn) and enjoyed it, I thought another wouldn’t be a bad thing – and so it proved.
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.