The Understudy, Canal Cafe Theatre

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by guest critic Jo Trainor

“An actor who needs money? What a unique situation!”

A long lost Kafka play is having its premiere on Broadway. Two big Hollywood action stars are playing the leads, but the fickle nature of unseen Bruce means they’ve had to cast Harry as an understudy. Breaking the fourth wall to speak to the audience, Harry takes us through his first rehearsal with actor Jake and stage manager Roxanne.

If you have theatrical friends, you definitely know actors like Jake and Harry because Theresa Rebeck’s script is just exactly on the money. It was only after leaving the theatre that I learnt that Rebeck was also the creator of American TV show, and stagey favourite, ‘SMASH’, but looking back at The Understudy it’s glaringly obvious. She has performers down to a tee, and that realism is what makes the play such a success.

Rebeck’s incredible knowledge is particularly apparent when it comes to Jake and Harry’s deep and meaningful conversations about Kafka’s intentions and the intense emotions his works invokes in them. Whilst the actors are in rehearsals it makes sense for them to take everything so seriously, but looking in on it as the audience it all sounds hilarious.

Lennard Sillevis and Samuel John are brilliant at bringing physical comedy to the roles. Sillevis’ Jake is constantly lunging and limbering up to prepare for the smallest of scenes; taking a stool off a table requires shaking his whole body out, and several exhalations. John’s Harry flails about the stage practicing how far he can push the comedy value of taking a drink. It’s completely ridiculous behaviour to watch but the combination of the writing and performance means it seems entirely believable. Who knew looking in on a rehearsal room would be so funny?

The show flows perfectly even though there is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing for the performers. The story moves between Harry’s addresses to the audience, to running through scenes, to airing dirty laundry, but it all fits as one show. Although she isn’t acting in the Kafka play, Rebeck has written Roxanne’s narrative to weave through all of the strands, and as a result she is such an interesting character for Emma Taylor to bring to life. In a play with multiple characters, Roxanne complains that two men are playing all the roles and outlines how much better certain parts would be if they were a woman. It’s little touches like this that make the piece; everything is so well thought out.

The Canal Café is a beautiful theatre that makes the audience a real part of the show; Roxanne sat next to me on several occasions, and that really works in The Understudy’s favour. All the elements come together in this show, so you have to catch it before the end of its short run. A sarcastic, funny, intelligent piece of theatre with a great cast that does it justice.

The Understudy runs through 11 March.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

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