Nobody is here to see the Understudy. The audience has paid to see the stars.
Two great shining stars, two leading lights of screen and stage - they sold out all the seats. One's a much loved knight of the realm, a character in that series of films everyone likes, and that other series of films everyone likes, and a national treasure to boot. The other's a much loved knight of the realm, another character in that series of films everyone likes, and world renowned from that TV show even more people like. The opportunity to see the pair together on the West End stage proved unmissable, as sales swiftly proved, and tickets waved at the ushers tonight were snapped up back in March.
An usher stands out front as the bearer of bad news. One of the lead actors will not be appearing in today's performance, doctor's orders, he needs to rest his voice. This is ghastly news. The entire point of the evening was to see the two gentleman friends engaged in verbal sparring, to enjoy the frisson as they stared at one another on the boards, to say you'd been there when they did. How annoying to realise that you'll be missing out, whereas the audience who came last night got the real deal. One of the main voices might have been raspy, but what does that matter when both were there, whereas tonight's cast list has a gaping hole.
But the name was indistinct - which one did they say? Which one would it be better to lose, assuming it were necessary to make the choice? Better to lose the slightly older knight, with his twinkly eyes and decades of experience, or better to lose the slightly younger knight, with his wicked grin and decades of experience? It matters not, the question is moot. Everybody paid up front to see the pair, and that coupling is broken, and oh bugger did you see how much the tickets cost?
The arriving audience can already guess what the terms and conditions will say. They'll say "Ha! Like it or lump it, we've got your money. You paid to see the play, and the play will be performed. Ha!" In fact they say "We reserve the right to make alterations to the advertised time, programme and cast as a result of circumstances beyond our control." Tonight only the cast has been altered, and it matters not that the cast is the only reason everyone's here.
A hastily-printed sign beside the box office window reveals the name missing of the missing knight, and less importantly who's been substituted instead. "Tonight the part of..." it says, confirming one of your two worst fears and crushing your soul. Then underneath it continues "...will be played by Somebody You've Never Heard Of". Googling him might prove informative, perhaps even reassuring, but his name is very common, and the theatre appears to have done a damned fine job of shutting down 4G within its walls.
Fork out extra and there he is in the programme... the Understudy. Normally nobody reads his biography, they don't care, scanning straight past from the lead actors to the production notes, and umpteen colour adverts for other productions with famous names to tempt you later. But tonight the Understudy's brief column is suddenly important; ten years with the Royal Shakespeare Company, stood in as Gandalf at the Theatre Royal, won a Manchester Evening News Best Actor Award, last theatrical work White Christmas at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. All admirable stuff, but with a gaping hole where 'Famous Person' ought to be.
The audience gather in their seats, perhaps more subdued than usual. They are an especially Home Counties crowd, not office workers at the end of their day, and older rather than younger, not the fantasy-loving demographic you might have expected to flock in given the cast. Meanwhile somewhere out back, in a star dressing room to which he is unaccustomed, the Understudy waits for curtain up. He knows the audience hasn't come to see him, he knows they wish he wasn't there, but his job is to step up and do the play full justice because that's the insurance policy he represents.
First out onto the stage is the non-absent knight, inhabiting his somewhat creepy character with award-winning fervour. Only after a good five minutes of monologue does the Understudy fling open the door and join him. How much the audience's hearts might have leapt to see the spark between the actors at this point, and to revel in their partnership on stage. How marvellous it would have been, from this point on, to feel the buzz of being in the actual same room as two actual big names. But not tonight. It soon becomes evident that the Understudy is indeed a fine performer, delivering his part flawlessly and with aplomb, but he is not The Missing One.
The play is not especially engaging, unless you like this kind of thing. It boasts little in the way of plot, and is more a stitching together of circular conversations and verbal power play. One man may not be who he says he is, another drinks to forget, and two additional background characters occasionally muddy the waters. Described by some as a comedy of menace, the narrative earns only a handful of laughs. It's everything you expect from the playwright, everything and more, but his work wouldn't be your top choice for a dramatic night out were it not for the actors inhabiting his roles.
The cliffhanger ending to the first half comes as some relief. Most of the audience shuffle off to stretch their legs or for refreshment, returning with tiny ice creams and plastic goblets of champagne. Many open up their phones in case they've got a signal, or open up their programmes to read about the man they hadn't come to see. A few dare to ask one another what might have been going on. Another famous Shakespearean actor is spotted in the stalls, tall and beaming, and moving around the auditorium to chat to family and acquaintances.
The second half begins with twenty minutes of actual plot. A dash of drunken misunderstanding allows the two lead characters to enter a lengthy verbal joust, riffing off one another in an ever-increasing sequence of fabulous tales and unlikely anecdotes. Had Knight One and Knight Two been here this would have been the highpoint of the evening, with wicked grins and knowing looks, but the couple on stage have no such shared backstory. They're both excellent, firing out the lines with emotion and not a word out of place, but our Night To Remember has not materialised.
The narrative darkens as the play nears its conclusion, perhaps a commentary on withdrawal, perhaps a paean to reclusivity. The curtain call comes swiftly, and a round of much deserved applause is proffered. Secondary Character One slaps the Understudy on the back as recognition of a job well done, and then The Knight Who Is Not Sick signals for hush. He emphasises how heartbroken his old friend is not to be here, and offers a heartwarming tribute to the Understudy for stepping in and smashing the part. The audience applaud all the louder, but not as loudly as if he had not been here.
They have been watching The Play With Only One Famous Person, whereas they'd paid for two. They had anticipated an unforgettable experience, whereas what they ended up with was simply drama. They have become victims of a West End beholden to the Star Name, where fame sells tickets, and the supporting cast are merely filler. The Understudy did everything expected of him, and more, with long hours spent memorising every line bearing forth great fruit. But in doing so he revealed the audience as celebrity-obsessed philistines, come to watch a play they had no interest in, and mistakenly focusing their disappointment on the man who filled the gap.
Nobody ever comes to see the Understudy. The modern West End audience pays to see the stars.