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Mark Shenton: Understudies embody the essence of theatre – its liveness

Chorus dancer Peggy Sawyer is told: “You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star,” when she is sent out to replace the lead Dorothy Brock in 42nd Street.

In a case of life imitating art, at a regional Christmas revival of the same show at Leicester Curve in 2011 understudy Lucinda Lawrence was sent out to replace Daisy Maywood as Peggy on the first night, when Maywood was suddenly taken ill.

Even more extraordinarily, two weeks ago an understudy for Dorothy in the current London production of 42nd Street at Theatre Royal Drury Lane was unexpectedly pressed into stepping into another show entirely.

Steph Parry was dispatched to the Novello Theatre next door, where Mamma Mia! is playing, to take over the role of Donna Sheridan after Caroline Deverill – herself a cover for the part – suffered a calf injury minutes into the performance. Parry had previously covered Donna at the Novello and played the role on a cruise ship. Mamma Mia!’s company manager remembered this and called his counterpart at 42nd Street to see if she was available.

As Parry told The Stage [1]: “It was my first day back at 42nd Street after a holiday and I was back to being a standby waiting in the dressing room tucking into some carrots and hummus.”

She abandoned her dinner and just 18 minutes after she got the call, was on stage at the Novello “in a mixture of other people’s costumes”. She added: “I think it’s a really good moment to celebrate the camaraderie of the West End, that 42nd Street were wanting me to go and help out another show and that we could pull all that together for the audience.”

As general manager Philip Effemay observed: “It was a completely unique experience for the audience. When something like that happens and it works, the audience love it. It was a one-in-a-billion chance that we had somebody who could play the role literally in the theatre next to ours, otherwise we would have had to abandon the show and refund everybody’s money.”

The show, in other words, was only able to go on because of an understudy, albeit one from a different show. Now, days after being thrust into the headlines, Parry has been promoted in 42nd Street into the role she was officially covering and will take over from Lulu as Dorothy from July 9 [2]. It’s a lovely piece of career karma.

In the same way, it was the sudden indisposition of Sheridan Smith during the West End run of Funny Girl that created an opportunity for her understudy Natasha Barnes.

Natasha J Barnes in Funny Girl. Photo: Paul Coltas
Natasha J Barnes in Funny Girl. Photo: Paul Coltas

But Barnes admitted in an interview with The Stage last year [3]: “I didn’t feel good about it at the time to be honest – I felt fraught and worried and wanted it to end well for everyone.” However, Smith was extremely supportive of her understudy and when a subsequent national tour was launched of the production, Barnes covered certain dates by prior arrangement.

More recently, Tim Howar – starring as Freddie Trumper in Chess at the London Coliseum in April – received news that his wife was going into labour in the middle of the first preview of the show. He rushed off to join her at the hospital and his understudy Cellen Chugg Jones had to complete the show – despite not having fully rehearsed the role. As he told the Evening Standard [4]: “I’ve rehearsed the first two scenes and done a quick note-bash of the songs, but that was it. Singing Pity the Child was the most nerve-racking part but the audience was incredible, they gave so much support.”

Covers and understudies can, so often, go on to become leading players themselves. Look at Caroline O’Connor, starring in a revival of The Rink at Southwark Playhouse. She was a walking cover to Diane Langton, who originated the role of Angel in the show’s short-lived London premiere in 1988 at the Cambridge Theatre. Now, she is playing the lead role of Angel’s mother in its latest incarnation, having just returned from Broadway’s Anastasia.

Ditto Ria Jones, who was suddenly thrust into the spotlight in 2016 when she stepped in for an indisposed Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard at the London Coliseum.

Last year, she made the role entirely her own in a new national tour of the show [5].

All this underlines one of the great glories of live theatre: the unexpected can, and indeed does, happen.