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BLOG: Championing the Understudy

Louise Redknapp has tumbled outta ‘9 to 5 The Musical’ this week when she stumbled in the street and broke her wrist.

In a statement, producers said “Due to an injury this week, Louise Redknapp has had to temporarily withdraw from performing the role of Violet. We hope Louise will start performances towards the end of March or early April”. But with previews beginning on 28th January the role will have to be recast or offered to her understudy.

Quick. Somebody call Steph Parry.

Parry made headlines last June when she saved a performance of Mamma Mia! by stepping into the shoes of Caroline Deverill to play Donna after Deverill was forced off stage with a calf injury. It led to Parry being promoted to a leading role in 42nd Street taking over from Lulu.

Understudies or covers, as they are sometimes called, are performers who learn the lines and blocking of a regular actor in a show. They then take over if the regular actor is taken ill or has an accident.

It can seem a very unrewarding position. Understudies have to learn and prepare the same volume of work, but only get to go on when there is an emergency. They are often seen as unsung heroes within the industry, with The National Theatre even naming its bar ‘The Understudy’ in dedication.

Mark Shenton caused a Twitterstorm earlier this week when he posted:

Shenton’s tweet got 1 retweet 21 likes and 30 comments mostly condemning him for disregarding Tompsett’s understudy Jordan Fox.

Shenton protested that he had already seen Kinky Boots ten times and that the only reason he was going again was to see his friend [Tompsett] in the role. He then apologized to Jordan Fox, claiming “no disrespect was intended to you”.

Jordan Fox has been part of the original West End cast of Kinky Boots and remained with the show for four years. He recently won the West End Wilma Award for Best Understudy. 

Shenton continued to fire fight the responses to his Tweet by re-posting two articles he had previously written for The Stage titled “Understudies embody the essence of theatre – its liveness” in which he reports Steph Parry’s story as well as “Why does the stigma of the understudy persist?” in which he discusses the meteoric rise of Natasha Barnes and Ria Jones who both won acclaim by understudying Sheridan Smith and Glenn Close respectively.

Shenton quoted himself as saying "An understudy has one of the most marginalised jobs in theatre – and the one with the worst karma. Their good fortune in going on comes at the expense of someone else being unable to perform." Before enforcing “So I really rate and respect understudies.”

By coincidence I was reminded this week of another unsung hero and a triumphant understudy story, I witnessed in May 2017 at the Arts Theatre.

During a run of ‘Judy’, that showcased three actresses at different points in the life of Judy Garland, Belinda Wollaston who played ‘Palace Judy’ lost her voice shortly after their Friday evening’s performance. Director Ray Rackham made a bold and unprecedented choice to pull Belinda off the show and bring in the show’s Costume Designer and Supervisor Millie Hobday to play the role of ‘Young Judy’ in turn elevating Lucy Penrose from ‘Young Judy’ to ‘Palace Judy’. Millie, a performer in her own right, was familiar with the show having dressed the entire cast, but had not actually studied the part or been rehearsed in.  

The team rallied around, working overnight as both Millie and Lucy learnt their new lines and blocking. Slight last-minute alterations were made to their costumes before the pair were then flung on for the matinee.  

By the sheer talents of both Millie and Lucy and the support of their cast mates, the performance went without a hitch, and the paying audience were none the wiser. The unrehearsed costume girl had triumphed.  

Having got through matinee by the skin of their teeth, there was little time to breath before they were thrust on again for the evening performance. As a friend to both Millie and Lucy, I snapped up a ticket and sat anxiously and watched. I had worked for Ray as a producer and knew this show well, having seen and worked around it. I had been star-struck by Lucy’s original performance since the first time I saw it, and as I sat and watched Millie recreate the role for herself, I was bewildered.

How was she doing it? Millie, like Lucy had before her, was managing to encapsulate every essence of a young Judy Garland, with astute mannerisms and pitch perfect vocals. She knew all the lines, all the blocking. Had she really managed to learn all this overnight?

To this day, I still don’t know how they pulled it off, but I was pleased to have been in the audience that night to watch a star being born.

Like Mark Shenton, I will always favour seeing my friends take to the stage, and I will continue to champion and support the understudy.

Next week I will be returning to watch my friend Luke Bayer as the alternate in ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” and will feel as proud as I did the first time I saw him make his West End debut. Sat front row, I watched Luke slip comfortably into John McCrea’s red stilettos, and for me, he brought out a more sensitive and broader range playing Jamie. Luke has four more scheduled performances before he and John McCrea both leave the company, handing the red stilettos over to Layton Williams to make his adult West End debut.

Steph Parry has her first solo show of 2019 titled “The Girl Who Ran Down the Road”, at the brand new cabaret venue, The Space at 7.15pm and 9.00pm on Friday 18th January. Tickets are available here:

Jordan Fox will perform for the final time as part of the ensemble of Kinky Boots which closes this Saturday 12th January.

Lucy Penrose can be found as guest host at Ray Rackham’s new piano bar Overtures, where you might also occasionally find Millie Hobday and I gossiping in a corner and singing along.

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