The Understudy

Imagine you’re a performer, yet you spend almost all your time waiting in the wings. Desperate for your chance to shine, if the curtain does come up and it’s you the audience sees standing there, they’re instantly disappointed – perhaps there are boos. Such is the life of an understudy.

John Schwab looking slightly madJohn Schwab is one of those people who does all manner of interesting things. He directs and produces through his company Solution Films. He fronts a band called Film@11. He does a lot of voiceover work and, to add to all of the above, he’s an actor. You may have seen him. When Dr Who was revived with Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper, John was the very first person to die at the hands of a dalek.

Sometimes John understudies. I last saw him shadowing Billy Zane in Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks at London’s Haymarket. Yesterday, it was off to the beautiful Old Vic where John was playing Kevin Spacey’s part opposite Jeff Goldblum in Speed the Plow. Apparently, if Jeff’s ever unable to perform, John’s his understudy too! Despite this, he never once got mixed up, and delivered Spacey’s lines perfectly.

I found David Mamet’s play itself is a bit hard to follow in the beginning, but as it went along it became stronger and stronger. The basic premise is that we begin in a Hollywood film studio in the office of the brand new Head of Production (Goldblum, playing Bobby Gould). When John (aka Charlie Fox) storms in, bringing with him the promise of a commercially successful prison movie from a famous director, the two high-five their way through the first act, finally interrupted by temporary secretary Karen. Fox bets the Head of Production five hundred dollars that he won’t be able bed Karen that very evening and Gould rises to the challenge.

The Head of Studio has apparently given Gould one of the most tedious-sounding books in history (about radiation slowly killing the planet and destroying the world) as a courtesy read. In turn, Gould gives the book to Karen who must bring her report to the Head of Production’s Hollywood mansion that evening.

Having read the book, Karen (normally played by Laura Michelle Kelly but in this understudy version by Emma Clifford), is somehow convinced it will make a critically acclaimed movie. Having slept with her, Gould is of the same mind and returns to his office the following morning to pitch the radiation film instead of the prison movie.

Speed the Plow production informationAt this point I was partly wondering if Kevin Spacey had planned to put a brilliant, crowd-pleasing play on at his London theatre, only to sleep with someone the night before who persuaded him to go with something else entirely. Speed the Plow, however, is saved by a magnificent third act where Charlie and Karen appeal to the different aspects of Gould’s nature to persuade him to go with the pitch they each want.

John pulls out all the stops with his performance. By the end, the audience (admittedly packed with friends) cheered wildly through several curtain calls. If either Goldblum or Spacey are unable to perform over the next fortnight, I’m sure that, by the end, the real audience would have been won over to do the same.
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~ by keithmansfield on April 11, 2008.

One Response to “The Understudy”

  1. I went to see this yesterday – it was fabulous. I did actually find myself thinking what it would be like if one of the main actors couldn’t perform, and whether i’d feel let down. It must be so hard as an understudy!

    Both Kevin Spacey and Jeff Goldblum were terrific and throw everything at it – it was so much fun! A touch misogynistic, and very Hollywood, but there was so much energy.

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