Should understudies have their performances reviewed?

Understudy; (noun)
a person who learns another’s role in order to be able to act at short notice in their absence.’

I’m a big fan of championing understudies in theatre. If I happen to see a show when an understudy is performing, I will always try to write some kind of review online about it, as rarely do understudies get the opportunity to have their performance mentioned by any kind of publication.

We all need ‘references’ in life, to show what kind of people we are. Did we pay our rent on time during our lease, did we do well at school that term or did we do well at work and perhaps deserve a promotion? Acting is no different but when you’re the understudy it’s very hard to get anyone to write anything about you and the truth is, a lot of the time it is because press are not allowed to. Or at least, not encouraged to do so.

It has gotten to the point where actors sometimes offer to pay for critics tickets, if they would be willing to write a review of their performance, so they have some kind of record that they really are doing the job they say they are. It’s crazy that it is at the point where that has to happen! But the truth of it is that if you are an actor, from another country, applying for a Visa to stay in the UK for longer, what proof do you have that you are really in a West End show? And how can you prove you are doing a great job and the UK needs you to stay to carry on being amazing?

Several times, over the years, I have been booked in to review shows, only to receive an email on the day to say one of the lead performers isn’t well, won’t be performing that evening and would I please not come (and wait until the performer is well to come and review instead). Would this not be the perfect opportunity to allow the understudy to shine and get the credit?

Understudies sometimes hit the headlines, like when Ria Jones had to go on, in place of Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard, or when Natasha Barnes had to take over from Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl. And only last year, when Steph Parry was understudying at 42nd Street and received an emergency phone call from Mamma Mia (a show she had starred in previously) to ask her to run down the road and go on stage as the lead. From receiving the phonecall, to walking on the stage at Mamma Mia took just eighteen minutes. All of these stories hit the headlines and went to show how amazing the understudies in the industry are. So why are understudy performances not encouraged to be reviewed more often?

I ran a poll on Twitter recently and 66% of people said that a review should be written, as planned, whether or not an understudy is performing. 26% said that press should be given the option to choose what they do. Where an email is sent saying something like “the lead performer is unwell and so if you would prefer to come another night instead and see the full cast, let us know”. To be given to choice, to decide what is best for each individual publication would be a wonderful idea wouldn’t it?

Understudies are the glue that hold the show together and so why aren’t producers championing them more and giving them the credit they deserve?

Also, on the subject of understudies, I’ve found this mini comedy series Understudies The Show which is a little bit of fun viewing if you’ve not seen it!

West End Wilma


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