Yet again, an understudy has saved the day. Only last month I was writing about how these unsung heroes embody the essential liveness of theatre – and how they enable the show to go on, whatever occurs. In April, we saw Tim Howar – starring as Freddie Trumper in Chess at the London Coliseum – receiving 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, which he did triumphantly by all accounts.
It was a bit hair-raising, to be sure – he’d never had a full rehearsal – and he told The Stage: “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.” But at the same time, adrenalin got him through – as did preparation. Knowing that Howar’s wife was overdue, he also explained: “I did as much as I could to get off-book.”
If that story was extraordinary, there was even more to come. In June, we saw Steph Parry, an understudy from 42nd Street at Drury Lane, rushed over mid-performance to take on the lead role in Mamma Mia! at the Novello next door – she’d previously been a cover there, too, so knew the role (and had performed it on a cruise ship).
These events had the real drama of live theatre, but they were only witnessed by those who were there on the night – not the nation’s theatre critics, who could record the event for posterity.
But that’s precisely what happened earlier this week when critics turned up at Chichester on Monday night to see Matt Lucas star as the “me” in Me and My Girl, a new production of the 1980s version of a 1930s hit that had made a musical theatre star of Robert Lindsay (and won him both the Olivier and the Tony Award when it transferred to Broadway).
Those would have been big shoes for Lucas to fill, so spare a thought for his understudy Ryan Pidgen, who had to suddenly fill them at the 11th hour.
As Ann Treneman wrote in The Times: “These are not just any shoes, either, but very busy ones, dancing, tapping, and doing the Lambeth Walk on a constant loop. Plus, as this is cockney slang territory, they are really not shoes at all but ‘ones and twos’.”
And, like Cellen Chugg Jones in Chess, Pidgen had not yet had his own understudy rehearsals. But Pidgen had done his own preparation, as he told The Stage: “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.”
I’m delighted to hear that Pidgen pulled it off, but I had in fact seen Lucas play the part a few nights earlier. As I was going to miss the opening night I had done that rare thing for a critic, I sneaked in to an early preview. No, I wasn’t reviewing, I was watching as a regular punter.
And Lucas was a complete revelation – at once hilarious, playful, mischievous, lovable and spontaneous (he improvised brilliantly with a faulty prop at that third preview). As he came through the ranks of the National Youth Music Theatre, he is a musical theatre natural, with a pleasingly effortless singing voice, but most of all real comic chops. Leading men who can sing, dance and do comedy are in rare supply. He also brings ample reservoirs of goodwill from audiences who know him from his TV work.
So, while it’s absolutely right to celebrate Pidgen’s brilliant achievement, I hope that my critical colleagues will also get the chance to see Lucas in the role – perhaps if the show earns a well-deserved West End transfer.