This online adaptation is a cheerful two hours of theatre-themed escapism in exchange for £5 towards a deserving cause
Before he was the bestselling author behind novels One Day, Us and Sweet Sorrow, and before he was the celebrated screenwriter behind the BBC’s adaptations of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Far from the Madding Crowd, and HBO’s Benedict Cumberbatch-starring Patrick Melrose, David Nicholls was an actor. And not a very successful one.
Under the stage name David Holdaway, he spent the best part of his 20s auditioning, understudying and playing bit-part roles in plays. His big break never came, but his experiences proved fruitful nonetheless – they were the inspiration for his second novel The Understudy, now converted into a star-studded “self-isolation radio play” (complete with slightly strange animations) by Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre.
It is a story that wittily steps between two very different acting worlds – the red velvet and rooftop parties of the West End, and the crappy agents’ offices and converted garages that sit somewhere south of success.
The glittery, but slightly incongruous, cast contributes from various lockdown locations
Our hero, Stephen McQueen (“no relation”, as he repeatedly has to confirm), is understudying the lead role in a star vehicle for Josh Harper, movie icon and 12th sexiest man in the world. Over two hour-long parts, released a week apart, Stephen is sucked into Josh’s tumultuous life and, via a grubby little deal the two make, tries to secure his own shot at stardom.
The glittery, but slightly incongruous, cast contributes from various lockdown locations. Russell Tovey is good as divorced dad Stephen – he has always done underdog world-weariness very well. Jake Ferretti, a sometime understudy himself, is entertainingly egocentric as Josh. Sheila Atim, Sarah Hadland, Layton Williams and Emily Atack all gamely chip in, too, and Britain’s narrator-in-chief Stephen Fry eases listeners from scene to scene in his sumptuous sotto voce.
Writer Henry Filloux-Bennett and director Giles Croft were part way through creating a full stage adaptation when coronavirus hit. They created this audio adaptation entirely in aid of the UK’s ailing theatre industry, so there is a lot you can forgive about it – including the slightly sloppy, sentimental storyline and the moderately mismatched vocal performances.
There are some things you can’t forgive, however: the irritating muzak that underscores everything and the unnecessary animations that accompany the audio, both of which we would be better off without.
Kudos, though, to Filloux-Bennett, Croft and co for stitching it all together in isolation. It can’t have been easy. The final product is, essentially, a cheerful two hours of theatre-themed escapism in exchange for a fiver towards a deserving cause.
Yes, there are far more exciting, more challenging audio experiences out there – the upcoming Lockdown Theatre Festival on BBC Radio, some of Audible’s latest theatre releases, for example – but who wants to be challenged right now anyway?