Little Venice’s Canal Café Theatre is partway through its first dedicated season (the American Season) that began last year with Driving Miss Daisy, and now continues with the UK première of Theresa Rebeck’s The Understudy. It is a play that both celebrates and lambasts the theatre industry, proudly showing off its participants’ passion – and bringing to light some of the downsides.
Harry is the archetypal struggling actor, passed over for big film roles that he thinks he could do easily – and left to understudy a film star (with no chance of ever getting onstage) in a hit Broadway play. Though even that position wasn’t gained in the most traditional way… He is at the theatre to rehearse with Jake, the film star Harry’s understudying who is himself cover for the lead role. After a rocky start, they begin to find some common ground and even have some creative ideas towards improving the play. But then Roxanne (the stage manager) gets a call that will change everything…
The play Harry and Jake are rehearsing is by Kafka; initially you wonder if a complete lack of Kafka knowledge and references will affect your ability to connect with and follow the play, but it absolutely doesn’t. Any parallels between their play and the narrative of the play are clearly explained, and linked well. It is a timely production, given that 2016 was proclaimed “the year of the understudy” and this year so far has already seen further controversy: most notably the shocking revelation that programmes for Gary Barlow’s The Girls contained no information about their understudies, and they were forced to reprint them to adhere to Equity guidelines! It seems that the understudy’s plight will continue for a while longer.
What Rebeck’s script does well is to put forward some opinions that people hold regarding understudies (such as why they’re needed, and whether they should simply imitate the star they’d be covering) and makes you question them. There’s also a good point about audiences coming to see a famous face rather than the show itself, and that forcing regular theatre actors down the pecking order below film stars. As much as theatre is a wonderful thing, it still comes back to money.
The theatre is set up in the round; some seats are even on what would normally be the stage, so everything is fully closed in. As the action is taking place in a theatre that isn’t open to the public at that moment, it makes sense for the cast to be encircled rather than have the audience sat in a traditional setup, as if they’re there to see the Kafka play. It also allows for Samuel John (Harry) to really engage with everyone watching; he can sit down, look directly at people, and generally make them feel like he is confiding in them. He is terrifically funny, with perfect timing on all of Harry’s cutting remarks – and the opening scene is a great way to start, hinted at by the soundtrack of Bond themes as you enter the auditorium.
Leonard Sillevis begins with the expected behaviour of a film star, making Jake quite unlikeable as he belittles underdog Harry, but as they start to develop a rapport his inner theatre actor comes out and we see a renewed enthusiasm for creativity. Emma Taylor as Roxanne also initially seems to be overly harsh on the understudy, but our sympathies change slightly when we learn the personal reasons behind this. Her interactions with the unseen sound engineer are some great comedy moments in the show.
My verdict? A play that grapples with the brilliance and unpleasantness of theatre that will be an eye-opener to many – I highly recommend it.
The Understudy runs at the Canal Café Theatre until 11 March 2017. Tickets are available online or on the door.