Life as an understudy on the West End

by LAURA SEAR

The late Nancy Seabrooke was the West End’s most beloved understudy. Her Miss Marple-look and dotty personality still capture the imagination of London’s showbiz world. From 1979 to 1994, she served as the understudy for Mrs Boyle in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. Seabrooke went on stage 72 times, and spent the remaining 16,000 hours backstage embroidering.

At the end of her career, already in her late seventies and almost 10 years since her previous performance, Seabrooke was asked to appear on stage at the last minute. The prospect of performing again was too nerve-racking for the elderly lady.  Minutes before she had to go on stage, she jumped into her car and left.

Nowadays, a West End understudy is unlikely to be trapped behind the red curtain for years at a time. A more efficient, but perhaps even more stressful system has been put in place. Today an actor can perform a minor role while understudying several characters. Sometimes the understudies have to learn the lines of almost every character in a production.

But the role still has a fairly notorious name in the theatrical world. An understudy has to go through a lot, from booing audiences asking for refunds because the lead actor has been replaced by an unknown, to undertaking weeks of preparation only to end up performing in front of a half-empty theatre during matinees. Unreported London went looking for London’s understudies to find out if the profession is indeed as gloomy as it might appear.

Abigail Matthews  

Abigail Matthews is an all-rounder: actor, dancer, singer, puppeteer and teacher. She previously performed in War Horse, and last year she was an understudy playing Miss Miller in the award-winning show Goodnight Mister Tom. Matthews understudied four characters during the UK tour of the show.

“It is hard work and the stress factor is high. Every character I play I want to portray in detail,” she said.

Understudies- Headshot
Abigail Mathews. Photo by Brendan Bishop

The general rehearsals for the production started four weeks in advance. “As an understudy you have to take notes during those rehearsals because the specific understudy rehearsals only start after the opening night.  This means that if something happens – and something usually happens – you have to go on stage and perform those lines before you’ve even rehearsed them,” she said.

“The first time that happened to me I was quite frightened, but once the show starts it all falls into place.”

According to Matthews, stress and workload are not the main obstacles. “The hardest part of the job is to find that balance,” she said. Matthews was given the space and support to make the parts she had to understudy her own.

“Sometimes you have to go on stage and perform before you’ve even rehearsed.”

“People don’t want to see a perfect imitation of the actor you are understudying, so you make it your own. However, you still need to give a recognisable performance.

“I guess this makes it more interesting for the cast as well to have some variation in the interplay. But not all West End understudies are given such freedom. Especially those who cover a celebrity need to follow strict instructions.”

Musical theatre works like this nowadays. Having a lot of understudies takes the edge off for performers. According to Matthews this is part of what makes a high quality West End show.

“If actors are relieved once in a while they perform better and to be honest, I believe that those who are understudying the part are just as strictly cast, trained and rehearsed as the starring actors.”

Sean Fox

Sean Fox, a young actor from Ireland, started his career in 2016 in the critically acclaimed Irish television series Smalltown. Having graduated from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), he decided to take a short break from screen acting to challenge himself on the stage at Shakespeare’s Globe.

Last summer, he was cast in the ensemble for Caroline Byrne’s modernisation of The Taming of the Shrew. After a few rehearsals, Fox and ensemble member Ayoola Smart were quickly put to the test.

“The first performance was rather tragically funny. Right before opening night, the actress who was playing Bianca broke her foot. Ayoola performed the role with only one emergency rehearsal,” he said.

Both actors needed to learn the lines of six characters.

“As you can imagine, that’s a lot of work. We were on a very strict rehearsal agenda: at the end of every week we both needed to know a different character. It’s very stressful but the fear of failing the team pushed me through it.

“During my time at the Globe, I learned more than I ever did at school.”

“There was one performance where both Ayoola and I had to go up on stage. I played Gremio, the 60-year-old suitor of Bianca. I particularly enjoyed that performance, mostly because of the fluent interplay between me and Imogen Doel, who was playing Tranio.”

Fox credits his fellow cast members for his successful stage debut.

“Over the weeks, the cast becomes your family. As an understudy you’re not hoping that your friends break something or get sick, but on the other hand, you really want to perform, so if you do have the opportunity, it is big match day and you give your absolute best,” he said.

“During the months I worked in the Globe, I learned more than I ever did at school. You’ll rarely stand in the spotlight, but you get billed the same as everyone else. I believe that understudying is a profession you do for your own development as an actor. Maybe the audience doesn’t appreciate the understudy, but the cast values you immensely.”

 

Featured image: Sean Fox. Photo by Jennie Scott