“Recorded in isolation, it is propelled by a cast that comprises the cream of the crop”
Of all his novels, David Nicholls has said that “The Understudy” is the one he most yearns to rewrite. Those familiar with the book would possibly balk at this show of modesty. It is true that it has been unfairly overlooked in the shadow of his better-known works, but it deserves more of the spotlight. The gentle, self-deprecating humour, laced with a sharp and cutting wit that can only come from experience, casts an astute eye over the ‘theatrical life’; taking us backstage and beyond.
For eight years Nicholls trod the boards himself. He was a failed actor, he admits, his career on a steep downward path. We somehow get the feeling he’s being too hard on himself, but his natural skills as a writer turned that failure into success and, with luck, his story can take centre stage now with its revival as a streamed, online radio play. Released in two parts, it is adapted by Henry Filloux-Bennett in response to Covid-19 thwarting the fully staged production. With director Giles Croft at the helm it is a wonderful homage to an industry under threat and reaffirmation that it has no alternative but to survive. (Consequently, all proceeds from the play go to theatre charities).
The story revolves around actor Stephen McQueen (no, not ‘that’ Steve McQueen); divorced, down on his luck and waiting in the wings for that big break. His ex-wife has given up waiting long ago, while his daughter wonders when he will get a proper job. McQueen’s luck looks set to change when he lands a job understudying the vane but talentless film star, Josh Harper, in the West End. He covets the leading man’s job, but unfortunately, he covets his wife too. When he sees an opportunity to steal both, things can only go horribly wrong.
Recorded in isolation, it is propelled by a cast that comprises the cream of the crop. You can almost ‘hear’ the twinkle in Stephen Fry’s eye as his affectionately sardonic narration weaves through the action; while Russell Tovey epitomises the hapless McQueen. Sarah Hadland, as ex-wife Alison, floors him with her sarcastic punches, but with her skilled shifts of tone can pick him up again with real affection. Josh Harper is suitably arrogant and wonderfully observed in Jake Ferretti’s portrayal. With Emily Atack as his love interest (on and off stage) and Sheila Atim as his intellectually and morally superior wife, they are all supplemented by a fine supporting cast.
The in jokes that litter the script will appeal beyond the theatre profession. Although those on the inside will be familiar with the mantra ‘Acting is Reacting’. It is hard to know whether the foreknowledge that each actor was recording their lines alone in their own homes affects our listening, but we are often all too aware of the isolation. There is a sense of detachment within the flow of dialogue and, inevitably, there will be a lack of chemistry. Nevertheless, with the editing skills and the addition of sound and music from Alexandra Faye Braithwaite, Annie May Fletcher and Sophie Galpin the show stands out as an excellent radio play in its own right. Even though it whets the appetite for the (hopefully) eventual fully staged production, it doesn’t seek to replace the live experience. This rendition of “The Understudy” succeeds in its own right and can, at least for now, step out to steal its own few moments in the spotlight.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Part One available from 20th May Part Two from 27th May with both parts available for a month
“doesn’t always capture the beauty of the novel, but it certainly wrings the emotion from the central themes and relationships”
Khaled Hosseini’s beautifully crafted debut novel, published in 1993, begins by telling the story of Amir, a young boy from the Kabul, and his close friend, Hassan. Hosseini successfully weaves an intimate saga of guilt and atonement into the framework of an epic backdrop. Although set against a backdrop of the tumultuous events – from the fall of Afghanistan’s monarchy through the Soviet invasion; the exodus of refugees and the rise of the Taliban – the reader is continually drawn into the minds of the main protagonists, and their personal battles and relationships. Presenting the grand scale of its setting with the small scale drama of the characters is always going to be a challenge. Matthew Spangler’s adaptation for the stage is faithful to the book and tells the story with startling clarity. It is inevitably condensed but Spangler manages to include all the key events without muddying the context.
We begin at the end. Afghani immigrant Amir is summoned from his California home to Pakistan by Rahim Khan, an old, dying friend of his father, who enigmatically tells Amir that “there is a way to be good again”. Rewind a quarter of a century and we meet Amir as a wealthy, privileged boy in Afghanistan, and his best friend, Hassan, the son of his father’s servant. When Hassan is brutally assaulted by a local bully, Amir is too scared to save him, and is tormented by feelings of guilt which follow him across the continents and generations. Barney George’s simple but effective set, dominated by a rising and falling kite, neatly evokes the central themes while also setting the scene – deftly transforming the Afghan landscape into the San Francisco skyline. Without having to worry where we are geographically and politically we are free to concentrate on the characters and the story. A story of love and betrayal, fathers and sons, good and evil, and the many grey areas in between.
David Ahmad, as Amir, is central to the drama, alternating between the role of narrator and then stepping into his reminiscences. The play does veer disproportionately towards telling us what happens rather than showing us, but Ahmad is a skilled storyteller whose portrayal is ultimately quite moving, especially in the closing moments when he learns some uncomfortable truths about his childhood. Equally strong support comes from Andrei Costin as the childhood friend, Hassan, who also doubles as his own orphaned son (apologies for the spoiler!) in the second act. Their alliance forms much of the political tension: their respective families coming from opposing ethnic backgrounds, although both becoming victims of the rise of the Taliban.
Dean Rehman cuts a formidable figure as Amir’s father, casting twin shadows of love and overbearing expectations over his susceptible son. The ensemble shift in the background between varying characters, occasionally coming to the fore to highlight key moments in the plot; particularly Lisa Zahra, who encapsulates wonderfully the patience and sorrow of Soraya, a fellow refugee of Amir who becomes his wife.
This production of The Kite Runner doesn’t always capture the beauty of the novel, but it certainly wrings the emotion from the central themes and relationships. In just over two hours we do get a pint-sized version, but it is a clear-cut potted history, thick with the atmosphere of a family saga; an atmosphere intensified by Jonathan Girling’s rhythmic soundscape, played live by Hanif Khan. Hosseini’s words are brought to life from the page in Giles Croft’s captivating production that orchestrates a man’s epic journey to the intimate tempos of his beating heart.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Irina Chira
The Kite Runner
Richmond Theatre until 14th March then UK tour continues