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Me and My Girl understudy Ryan Pidgen: ‘I’ve never heard anything like the roar from the crowd’

Ryan Pidgen in rehearsal for Me and My Girl at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson Ryan Pidgen in rehearsal for Me and My Girl at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

Shortly before curtain up on press night of Me and My Girl at Chichester Festival Theatre last night, Matt Lucas, one of the show’s stars, had to pull out on doctor’s orders. Ollie Cole talks to Ryan Pidgen, the understudy who stepped into the comedian’s shoes and had the audience on their feet by the end.

When did you find out you were going on?

The whole cast came in about 2pm. We were going to do a speed run of the show because we’d had Sunday off and it was press night, so we just wanted to get back in the zone. Matt [Lucas] was really struggling with his voice when he came in, but he was ploughing through and trying to make it work. Around half past four he was sent to the doctor who advised him to rest for 48 hours. So, I was pulled aside about half an hour later and asked if I’d be willing to go on, and of course I said yes.

How much preparation had you had for the role?

Well, we weren’t actually going to start the understudy calls until today, because we’d been changing the show over the last week through previews. So everything I did on press night was just from watching Matt for the last six weeks and absorbing what he’d been doing. So, there was lots of me being dragged around the stage. Alex Young, who plays Sally, was pushing me around that stage like nobody’s business and bless her for being so amazing to work with. It was incredible. There were moments where I’d open my mouth and I wasn’t sure what was about to come out, and then a line would come out and it was thankfully the right one.

Caroline Quentin and Ryan Pidgen (centre) in Me and My Girl. Photo: Johan Persson
Alex Young, Caroline Quentin and Ryan Pidgen and company in Me and My Girl. Photo: Johan Persson

How did the audience respond to your performance?

Daniel Evans, the director, had given a small speech beforehand to let the audience know what the situation was, but because we don’t have any swings I still went on as part of my ensemble role in one of the early numbers before I went on as Bill Snibson. I got to see the audience before they saw me and knew who I was, which made me feel a lot more comfortable.

As soon as I went out as Bill, I could feel the whole audience behind me, willing me to do well, so it was an incredible experience right through the show and then by the end everyone was on their feet. I’ve never heard anything quite like the roar and applause from the crowd, it was an insane feeling.

Today has been amazing too, with texts and tweets all over the place. My phone has been non-stop. Twitter’s going crazy with the loveliest people, and it’s been overwhelming.

Me and My Girl review at Chichester Festival Theatre – ‘a dazzling revival’

So what about tonight?

I’m back on tonight, but hopefully Matt will be back with us after a rest because we do miss him hugely.

They’re big shoes to fill…

He’s so good at the part, and a big name in the show. The good thing about not having much notice before going on was that I didn’t have time to panic or think I couldn’t do it. I just jumped in and hoped I’d do his role justice.

Have you ever had anything like this happen before?

I’ve just finished the UK tour or Fat Friends the Musical, where I was understudying Freddie Flintoff, which was interesting, so there is a theme [of understudying celebrities]. I also did Billy Elliot in the West End, and on my opening night I was thrown on in the role of Mr Braithwaite because the actor had twisted his ankle.

You’re no stranger to big shows and big audiences then…

I did Wind in the Willows at the London Palladium last year, I did Showboat at the New London Theatre, as it was then. I previously did Anything Goes with director Daniel Evans so I knew that he believed in me and that made me a lot more comfortable to power through.

What is your acting background?

I’m originally from Cornwall and I trained in musical theatre in Leeds at a small college called SLP. I graduated 10 years ago. I’ve been really lucky and I haven’t really stopped working. Doing Chichester for the first time has been especially brilliant, as I haven’t been down here to even watch a show before. The shows and audiences are amazing, and the weather has helped too, except the heatwave during tech.

Do you know where you’re heading next?

No plans as yet, but I haven’t had a day off this year yet so I’m going to take a little break before seeing what’s what. First though, I’ve got to head in today and should probably learn the actual script and part before going on as Bill again.

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