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The Understudy



The Understudy

The Understudy

Online via www.theunderstudyplay.com

Reviewed – 20th May 2020



“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


The Understudy

Part One available from 20th May Part Two from 27th May with both parts available for a month

Online via www.theunderstudyplay.com



Last ten shows reviewed by Jonathan:
Message In A Bottle | ★★★★ | Peacock Theatre | February 2020
Musik | ★★★★ | Leicester Square Theatre | February 2020
Nearly Human | ★★★ | The Vaults | February 2020
Tell It Slant | ★★★ | Hope Theatre | February 2020
The Importance Of Being Earnest | ★★★½ | The Turbine Theatre | February 2020
Closed Lands | ★★★ | The Vaults | March 2020
Max Raabe & Palast Orchester | ★★★★★ | Cadogan Hall | March 2020
The Kite Runner | ★★★★ | Richmond Theatre | March 2020
The Last Five Years | ★★★★ | Southwark Playhouse | March 2020
A Separate Peace | ★★★★ | Online | May 2020


Click here to see our most recent reviews


Everybody’s Talking About Jamie – West End Transfer

Once upon a time there was a 16-year-old boy who had a secret he wanted to tell … So, he approached a documentary film maker as you do, and asked if they would help him tell it. The resulting documentary was seen by a theatre director and it inspired him to create a musical. A producing regional theatre backed him. He then bumped into a famous musical theatre star who introduced him to a well-known pop composer who was working with a lyricist and book writer. The theatre put on the production. A major producer saw it and offered them a West End theatre.

So, thanks to Jamie Campbell, Firecracker Films, Michael Ball, Sheffield Theatres and Nica Burns, a new British musical by a new British theatre writing and directing team, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie opens at the Apollo Theatre on Wednesday 22 November 2017.

Sheffield Crucible Production Cast. Photo by Johan Persson

Jamie New is sixteen and lives on a council estate in Sheffield. Jamie doesn’t quite fit in. Jamie is terrified about the future. Jamie is going to be a sensation. Supported by his brilliant loving mum and surrounded by his friends, Jamie overcomes prejudice, beats the bullies and steps out of the darkness, into the spotlight.

This fearless, funny, fabulous brand new musical sensation hits London with catchy new songs by lead singer-songwriter of The Feeling Dan Gillespie Sells and writer Tom MacRae. Sixteen: the edge of possibility. Time to make your dreams come true.

John McCrea in Sheffield Crucible Production. Photo by Johan Persson

John McCrea will reprise his role of Jamie, alongside the majority of the Sheffield Crucible cast including: Josie Walker, Mina Anwar, Tamsin Carroll and Daniel Anthony, Luke Baker, Courtney Bowman, James Gillian, Harriet Payne, Shiv Rabheru, Lucie Shorthouse, Kirstie Skivington.

Director Jonathan Butterell, Composer Dan Gillespie Sells and writer and lyricist Tom MacRae said:

“After Everybody’s Talking About Jamie was commissioned we spent three hours in a wig room in Sheffield in which we wrote the complete plot and framework for the show before catching the train back to London. The three of us just clicked and we were instantly a team. It has been a new adventure for all of us, this is our first musical and going from zero to West End has felt like a fairy tale.
There is a bit of all three of us that has ended up in Jamie. We knew we needed a very specially talented performer to play him and when John McCrea walked into the room he was perfect. We hope that audiences will see a bit of Jamie in themselves too.”

Producer and theatre owner Nica Burns said:

“Everybody seemed to be talking about the show so I went to see the final matinee in Sheffield with no expectations. I came out of the auditorium singing the tunes having laughed, cried, laughed again and dancing with happiness. I found the director, and immediately offered to produce the show in London at one of my theatres. It had to come to the West End. This is an uplifting musical for our times and for everyone.”






Apollo Theatre | 31 Shaftesbury Avenue | London W1D 7ES


Booking number: 0330 333 4809







PREVIEWS FROM : Monday 6th November 2017


Monday to Saturday at 7.30pm

Matinees – Wednesday and Saturday at 2.30pm


Ticket prices – £10 to £65