Review: The Understudy

David Nicholls’ The Understudy translates to an amiable radio play with Stephen Fry, Sarah Hadland and Russell Tovey

Unswayed by the arrival of Covid-19, playwright Henry Filloux-Bennett and director Giles Croft have adapted their putative theatrical production of The Understudy into a two-part audio version. David Nicholls’ early novel about a jobbing actor has been lightly updated and the injoke-heavy result is rather good fun.

Narrator Stephen Fry takes us through the journey of Stephen McQueen (no relation!) as he prepares to understudy a hunky young actor in the West End and espies an opportunity to collude with the 12th sexiest man in the world to allow him to philander away and let Stephen chase the stardom that has eluded his career so far.

There’s no two ways about it – this is a (radio) play for people who love the theatre, as it is jam-packed with jokes and jabs about actors, directors, the rehearsal process, theatrical agents, critics, the trend for site specific theatre and more beside. Russell Tovey is perfectly suited to the role of Stephen and even if the female characters are less well-written, Sheila Atim, Emily Atack and Sarah Hadland all impress.

Alexandra Faye Braithwaite, Annie May Fletcher and Sophie Galpin’s sound design is effectively managed, you’d be hard pressed to work out that each actor recorded their own part from isolation at home. A visual version with random illustrations doesn’t work quite as effectively, nor the over-insistent music, but I like the ambition here and the desire to elevate our experiences in these challenging times.

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