The Understudy, Canal Cafe Theatre ***

Gillian FisherComedy, Culture, Theatre, Theatre Review, UKLeave a Comment

Review The Understudy

Harry (Samuel John) finding his motivation

In an industry obsessed with celebrity and explosive CGI, there remains one vestige of true dramatic talent.  Harry. The bobble hatted hipster sat alone on New York stage. As understudy to Hollywood’s golden boy, Jake, our struggling artist has some firm opinions on commercialisation of the arts. Luckily stage manager, Roxanne is there to keep the peace as a battle of egos takes centre stage. But we soon discover that Roxanne has her own contentions to bring to the rehearsal room. Cue heartbreak, confessions and stoned lighting assistants in this riot of a run through. And yet, the show must go on.

Review: The Understudy, Canal Cafe Theatre
Review The Understudy

Jake (Leonard Sillevis) & Harry (Samuel John) ponder the existence of bananas

Set in the round, this production affords the audience a somewhat immersive glimpse behind the stage curtain. An interesting insight into the mechanics of theatre production, but it also shows the actors in full swing of their creative processes. Harry, played with a Withnail-esque conceit by Samuel John hams up this improvisation element superbly. As our actors deliberate over the correct way to hold a gun or glug a drink, our weary Roxanne looks on. Played by Emma Taylor, this stage manager positively bristles with resentful apathy. The dynamic of this motley trio is brilliantly played out and cogently represents modern day theatre. The artists, the stars and the creatives who have to pander to the market. Roxanne is only too aware that Kafka’s undiscovered masterpiece will only be a hit if the leading man has his name in lights.

Review The Understudy

Roxanne (Emma Taylor) grapples with being stage manager


Writer Theresa Rebeck’s keen observation of actors as a subspecies plays out with hilarious effect. Jake played by Leonard Sillevis psyches himself up for scenes by reciting lines from Taxi Driver, while Harry meditates. The prosaic actors’ issues of thwarted ambition, rejection and exploitation also come to the fore, neatly reflected by the scenes they rehearse. Much to Harry’s surprise, we discover that Jake feels typecast by his action movie roles. Casting agents ignore his acting prowess, preferring to stick him in a vest and have him to shout “Get in the truck!”

As a play about a play, there is constant flitting between settings and characters, which is excellently directed by Russell Lucas. The high energy of the piece is aptly maintained, but there remains a subtlety to this production. Through hushed asides and spontaneous outburst (all of which are heard offstage thanks to the loud speakers) we get under the skin of our characters. It transpires that the road to Broadway has not been paved with gold. As well as skillful character development, Rebeck’s writing also provides an astute commentary upon art in the 21st century. A thought provoking three-hander which deserves its moment in the spotlight.

Photographs courtesy of Simon Annand

  The Understudy – Canal Cafe Theatre          

8 Stars



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Gillian FisherThe Understudy, Canal Cafe Theatre ***