It's been quite a year for understudies in the West End, from Funny Girl to Sunset Boulevard – high profile cases where the show must go on and the understudy steps in to save the day at the last minute. Usually the unsung heroes of the industry, it's no surprise that there's both comedy and drama to be found in their position, but whilst Waiting for Waiting for Godot sometimes hits the mark the performances stop it from ever fully taking off.
“Acting is difficult – actors shouldn't be”. Top advice from Simon Day's pompous and somewhat delusional Ester in Dave Hanson's slight but occasionally smart backstage comedy that follows two hapless understudies as they wait behind-the-scenes to be called into the fray to star in Beckett's most famous absurdist drama. Drawing on real-life past experiences of his time in the same position, Hanson vamps on the idea that his two characters are literally waiting for Waiting for Godot, and through their boredom we discover that it's not just the audience who are baffled by the play.
The characters of Ester and Val are familiar enough to feel comfortable but stay on the right side of stock, and whilst their relationship has echoes of Laurel and Hardy they remain interesting in their own right. In a cramped room backstage at the theatre the duo contemplate their lot, with Ester offering acting advice compiled from half-read books and overheard conversations. Some of the strongest moments of the comedy come from his teaching the younger and vulnerable Val classical acting techniques, ranging from the 'Miserly' technique, a malaprop for Meisner, to the idea that RADA (which he pronounces Rarrdarr) is merely a state of mind.
The piece takes its time to find its rhythm but warms up, particularly throughout the second act, as both Simon Day and James Marlowe grow more comfortable with Hanson's quick back-and-forth dialogue. Director Mark Bell, who has a tremendous track record of squeezing out every last laugh in plays such as The Comedy About a Bank Robbery and The Play That Goes Wrong, builds up a number of routines that will no doubt settle in further into the run but right now feel a little safe. He judges the space well, and whilst I'm yet to be convinced that the St James Studio is suitable for either book musicals or plays, he eventually finds the appropriate tempo and volume to keep the piece afloat in what is fundamentally a cabaret venue.
The similarities between the two plays is certainly interesting to consider, and I found the moments of stillness and subtlety the most convincing. Whilst it's not a patch on Beckett's original, the parallels between the nature of show-business with its constant carrot and stick, passing time whilst waiting for your big break and the psychological demands that places on those in the performance industry were worthy of exploration. The third character of the stage manager (Laura Kirman) is more of a device to keep the momentum going rather than a solid addition to the drama, and whilst she helps the piece change direction she ultimately feels unnecessary.
Sophia Simensky's realistic set intentionally adds to the feeling of claustrophobia, and Ester and Val become like caged animals in a less-than-glamorous back room waiting for their star turn. Bounding around the space in a grimy set of long-johns, Simon Day doesn't always feel fully relaxed into the role, at times it's over declamatory and a touch laboured. He could do with an additional layer of authority especially when lecturing James Marlowe's soft and perfectly judged fool. As a comic duo they never quite find their spark and I found myself similarly waiting for their relationship to ignite, which like Godot, sadly never arrived.