The Understudy, Canal Café Theatre, London ★★★½

Originally reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

As acting gigs go, being the understudy to a famous actor in a large West End or Broadway show is a thankless one. If the person in whose shoes you are expected to stand is indisposed, the production will face demands from theatregoers who would rather receive a refund and see no show at all than see a production with an unexpected actor in on the hope they would still enjoy it.

Such a role is the central story in Theresa Rebeck’s 2007 play The Understudy, receiving its UK premiere at the Canal Café Theatre. Leonard Sillevis is Jake, an actor playing the second lead in a Broadway production of a recently discovered Kafka play. Buoyed by the successful opening weekend of a brainless action film of which he was the star, Jake is resentful of having to rehearse with his new understudy, the unpredictable Harry (Samuel John) under the exasperated eye of stage manager Roxanne (Emma Taylor), who is more stressed than normal due to Harry being the ex-fiancé who walked out on her two weeks before their wedding.

Rebeck’s pastiche of Kafka is good enough to examine the differing acting styles of the two actors, throwing them first into conflict and then into a grudging respect. It also highlights the difficulties of being an understudy, in that one is expected to implement somebody else’s acting decisions that would have been derived after weeks of rehearsals.

While such discussions about acting, acting style and behaviour in the rehearsal room could have the potential to be alienating to those not in the industry, Rebeck’s script keeps such discussions light and open enough to be appealing. Some repetition of scenes, with characters giving completely different readings of the exact same lines, give an insight into the hard work that goes into transforming what is on the page, and how a simple choice can cascade into a completely different version of a play.

Elsewhere, there are repetitions in dialogue between the three characters that are less revealing. In several places, a character returns from a period off-stage to be told something which the previous two characters have already discussed, or an oblique but understandable comment is explained in more depth. In reference to the Kafka piece, the players note that the Czech author often gave only the merest hint of his characters’ back stories: at times it feels as if Rebeck could have taken her own advice.

A running gag about an incompetent lighting technician, designed to accommodate the need to jump about the play-within-a-play, is implemented in such a way that at times it kills off the main piece’s momentum. And that is a shame, because at its best The Understudy is an enjoyable workplace comedy that throws some light on the effect of commercial demands on mainstream theatre.

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