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Give understudies due credit, say West End stars

Emma Williams (photo: Michael David Smith), Michael Xavier (photo: Adam Hills) and Helana Muir

West End stars including Michael Xavier and Emma Williams are calling on producers to reintroduce pre-show audio announcements when understudies are performing.

The calls have been prompted by recent cases of West End leads taking time out of a show, only to be congratulated by audience members for their performances on social media.

Despite producers often putting slips into programmes or placing notices in theatre foyers about understudies, performers worry audiences do not always clock the cast changes.

Most recently, Alice Fearn, who plays Elphaba in Wicked [1], said she had been off sick but had been tweeted by people assuming she had been playing the role, unaware an understudy had gone on.

Jay Perry, who is currently playing Berry Gordy in Motown the Musical [2], said he too had been messaged by people congratulating him for his performance, even when he had been off.

“Having been an understudy before, I think it’s important they get credit for the performance they put in. And now playing a role that is understudied by numerous people, I still feel it’s important for them to get their credit,” he said, backing calls for audio announcements.

Performers’ perspective on understudy announcements [3]

Details of how understudies should be announced are part of Equity and the Society of London Theatre’s West End agreement, which says notification must be made using a “reasonable method of communicating this information”. This can include slips in programmes or a public audio announcement.

But the use of public audio announcements has been scaled back in recent years, with some believing producers have opted not to use them because of negative audience reaction.

Williams, who is currently on tour with An Officer and a Gentleman [4] and who originated the #creditforcovers [5] campaign on Twitter, said the issue of “cover visibility has been of rising concern across the board over the past few years”.

She acknowledged that audiences booing at pre-show announcements might be off-putting for some performers, but added: “Only by not shying away from the fact that covers keep the West End running will we be able to better educate our audiences as to how lucky they are to see that version of a show on any given night.”

Performers who have saved the day [6]

Xavier has starred in Sunset Boulevard at the London Coliseum, alongside Glenn Close. He appeared alongside Ria Jones [7] when Close had to pull out of certain performances and said he had witnessed first hand negative audience reaction to such announcements.

But Xavier said Jones went on to win audiences over.

“The fear of a negative reaction from the audience shouldn’t be a reason to shy away from fresh talent taking the stage on any night. It should be a reason to ramp up the excitement in the house,” he said.

Producer Michael Harrison, who is behind Young Frankenstein [8] in the West End, said while he sometimes used audio announcements it was difficult for producers to credit all cast changes within a show, when the knock on of one or two performers being off could be “massive”.

“It’s worth talking about as understudies save shows – they really do. They are the lifeblood – they keep the curtains up and the shows going on. We have to find a way of doing something about it,” he said.

Understudy announcements – professional perspective

Emma Williams – performer

Emma Williams. Photo: Michael David Smith
Emma Williams. Photo: Michael David Smith

Understudies should and must be celebrated. They are the lifeblood of our industry. These incredibly talented individuals work their socks off to make sure shows go ahead when other cast members are indisposed for any reason. They protect the production and so it seems only right they should be given the right amount of credit for their invaluable work.

I can understand how, in a digital media age, some producers feel it is important to fulfil only the necessary announcements for understudies. They’re not doing anything wrong by choosing a method that might go unnoticed by the average theatregoer, but wouldn’t it be nicer if the decision to celebrate covers came from the top down? If producers and managers could take the bolder stance to bring back cover visibility and proudly announce when our understudies are stepping into the shoes they rehearse tirelessly for?

Most of us will have experienced that horrible moment when a cover is announced and a select few audience members groan or boo. It sucks. But only by fighting against this will we be able to better educate our audiences as to the circumstances and also how lucky they are to see that version of a show on any given night.

Michael Xavier – performer

Michael Xavier. Photo: Adam Hills
Michael Xavier. Photo: Adam Hills

Wouldn’t it be lovely to go back to announcing the covers in a positive and exciting way before a show starts (yes, we may need some actors to do this – or indeed voice-over artists and perhaps theatrical stage managers).

I understand the reason why some producers choose not to announce the leading actor’s absence for fear of the audience demanding refunds, especially when the leading player is a big star of television or film. I witnessed, first hand, the audience reaction due to the absence of Glenn Close one night at the London Coliseum when she was taken ill during our run of Sunset Boulevard. The reaction from a very small pocket of people was, in my memory, disgraceful. However, the brilliant Ria Jones came out on stage and gave the performance of a lifetime to a stunned audience of more than 2,000. The reaction at her curtain call? Incredible.

The fear of a negative reaction from the audience shouldn’t be a reason to shy away from fresh talent taking the stage on any night. It should be a reason to ramp up the excitement in the house. Covers are the backbone of theatre and the reason plays and shows can run eight times a week.

Helana Muir – understudy in The Play That Goes Wrong

Helana Muir
Helana Muir

Audio announcements would be good. It gives that extra bit of recognition for what understudies have to do behind the scenes. For example, on The Play that Goes Wrong, we are not just sitting in a dressing room with the chance to do the odd show. We also assist with the stage management track every night, so we are assistant stage managers as well as understudies. Sometimes we might be scheduled for an ASM track that night but suddenly get the call saying we’re needed to perform, and then somebody else steps into your shoes and understudies your ASM role.

We have had people who aren’t in the company anymore, but were in previous casts, come in and cover for us when we’ve been called to perform. Giving that extra announcement to say: ‘Someone is working hard to make sure the show goes on’ would be good.

Michael Harrison – the producer

Michael Harrison
Michael Harrison

Whether or not we use audio announcements varies from show to show. But in most shows, if two people are off, there is a massive knock-on to the company. So the argument is: do you just announce it for the understudies moving into the principal roles, or do you announce it for the full company changes?

It needs further discussion. I don’t like announcements. Sometimes you want to start the show with a bang – such as with The Bodyguard, which starts with a gunshot. With pantomimes, you want the orchestra to strike up and surprise the audience. It’s really tricky. The audience deserves to know who they’re watching and the performer deserves credit. It’s worth talking about as understudies save shows – they really do. They are the lifeblood, as they keep the curtains up and the shows on. We have to find a way of doing something about it.

Performers who have saved the day

In 2001, Kerry Ellis made her West End debut as second understudy for Martine McCutcheon in My Fair Lady. She went on to star in We Will Rock You and Wicked, among others.

In 2015, Noma Dumezweni [9] was called in at short notice to play the lead in Linda at the Royal Court [10], after Kim Cattrall pulled out.

In 2016, audience member Melissa Bayern [11] stepped in to cover a lead role in Into the Woods [12] at Manchester’s Royal Exchange.

Natasha Barnes stepped in to cover Sheridan Smith in 2016, who took a leave of absence from the production of Funny Girl [13] due to stress and exhaustion.

Ria Jones [14] made headlines in 2016 after she covered the role of Norma Desmond for Glenn Close in the London run of Sunset Boulevard [15].

Earlier this year, Steph Parry saved a performance of Mamma Mia! after its lead was injured. Parry was appearing in 42nd Street at the time and had to dash across the street to appear in the ABBA musical.

In May this year, Cellen Chugg Jones [16] took over a leading role in Chess [17] during its first preview, without a full rehearsal.

Ryan Pidgen [18] was called into cover Matt Lucas on the press night of Me and My Girl [19] at Chichester Festival Theatre just hours before curtain up.