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The Understudy, part three

That’s Paul, second on the left, as Touchstone. It’s how I was meant to look – and then un-look – in minutes.

And this is the Olympia Theatre programme, Dublin, where we ended the Season.

And you will see that we performed both plays in a week, finishing with AS You Like It and that’s where the near-disaster occurred, in Dublin, not Belfast – Ray Llewellyn was mistaken, (excusable, after forty years). My recollection is that the horror happened before the matinée – Paul and friends had been caught in Dun Laoghaire sunning themselves and lunching merrily (as I nearly was one day) before the two final performances of the year.

As it happens, understudying never came up again, for me, as I worked almost always in a television studio – not until, unexpectedly, I was hired by the RSC – and then I made it a condition of joining the company that I wouldn’t be asked to understudy. (I describe how this fell out in Part Two of Are You going to do That Little Jump?)

In 1994, at the RSC, I discovered what phenomenal changes had taken place in theatre practise since I was more than glancingly in touch with any major stage company. Not only were there understudy calls every three weeks, or so – right through the season – but the understudy company gave as near as possible a complete performance of the play they were covering. Wardrobe made sure the actors had acceptable costumes, in case they had to go on for their principal. The change even went so far as to allow an actor playing Puck to take paternity leave to welcome his new baby into the world – his understudy went on for one performance only. Fantasy land, for any actor used to the habits of the 50s and 60s. I am trying to imagine how our artistic boss, Michael Benthall, would have responded to a member of his Old Vic company asking, ‘Would it be all right for me to take next Tuesday week off from playing Malcolm – it’s the day Maggie is likely to go into labour?’ After the first shock, bewilderment and rising anger, it would have been treated as an eccentric joke.

Nurtured, as I was, in old ways I did think it was pushing it to ask an actor to play Puck for just one performance but, because it was factored in and prepared for, the covering actor had a good, exciting time, was showered with congrats from his fellow-players and nobody seemed at all to mind the extra work and upheaval we were put to.

Since then, I’ve attended understudy runs of West End plays open to the public – free – and have seen some wonderful performances. It means that ‘cover’ is now taken seriously and an understudy is intended to be up to playing his/her part – not a stop-gap in case of disaster. … The whirligig of time…

End Part Three