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Actor and Chess understudy Cellen Chugg Jones – ‘It was single-handedly the best moment of my life’

Cellen Chugg Jones. Photo: Ruth Crafer Cellen Chugg Jones. Photo: Ruth Crafer

At the first preview of Chess at London’s Coliseum last week, leading man Tim Howar was forced to leave at the interval as his wife gave birth. Understudy Cellen Chugg Jones stepped into the role of chess grandmaster Freddie Trumper, without even a full rehearsal. He tells Simon Fearn how it happened…

Was this the first time you have been called on stage at such short notice?

No, it’s a bit strange. I understudied in American Idiot in 2016 and I went on as Tunny on press night. I didn’t know the guitar numbers or anything at that point, so it was a very frantic half hour rehearsal. In School of Rock I was thrown on for Theo because one of the leads was taken ill. Maybe I’m just an unlucky charm.

Understudy steps in halfway through first Chess preview after leading man’s sudden exit

Did you expect to cover for Howar at some point since his wife was due to have their baby?

I knew there was a chance, so I did as much as I could to get off-book. Tim’s wife was quite overdue and had been in labour for 36 hours when he arrived at the theatre. He said he would do the show and go straight back to the hospital afterwards. He got a phone call from the hospital in the interval saying they were going to do an emergency C-section. Obviously the natural reaction for him was to bolt out the door.

How did you feel when you found out you would take over as Freddie?

I wasn’t feeling well that day, so it was very much: “Oh God, I’m going to have to sing Pity the Child”. It’s such a big song and my voice wasn’t feeling 100%. Once I knew I was going on, there was no time to get nervous. I just had to think about my entrances and exits and focus.

What about when you went on stage?

Once I got on stage I never felt as though I wasn’t meant to be there. There was one moment when Alexandra [Burke] and Michael Ball were in front of me singing and I thought: “My line is next and I haven’t a clue what it is”. It came out of the ether a millisecond before I had to say it.

What was it like backstage when you finished the performance?

Straight after the show the producers, directors and creatives were cheering and hugging me. It was single-handedly the best moment of my life, but at the same time I didn’t know how to respond. Everyone was so happy and people were crying and I stood there blank-faced and didn’t know what to do.

Do you think dramatic stories like this help us to properly appreciate understudies?

Definitely. Understudies, swings and dance captains – all the people who make sure the show goes on – are massively under appreciated. Things like our pay category and the fact we’re expected to go on at a minute’s notice with no preparation can be frustrating. Understudies really do save the show and need to be more appreciated.

CV: Cellen Chugg Jones

Training: Guildford School of Acting (2010-2013)
First professional role: Boland in Dogfight at Southwark Playhouse (2014)
Agent: Ashley Vallance

Chess is at the London Coliseum until June 2

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