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Friday Briefing 10th January 2020

Friday Briefing: Giving credit to understudies and revisiting favourite shows

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

The West End's singing unsung heroes

One of my favourite twitter accounts is @WestEndCovers, which issues daily alerts of which West End and touring understudies are getting the chance to show their wares - and sometimes also applauds the unexpected. Last night, for instance, they tweeted:

Last month it was @WestEndCovers who announced:


On Twitter, footage of Cameron Mackintosh can be found making an announcement from the stage of this, saying that Pearce took over at 3 hours notice.As he put it with unmistakable croak in his own voice, Gerard Carey - who was scheduled to play the role - had been struck down by a "terrible lurgy, which I've had up until a few days ago".

What this neglects to mention is that, since understudies are not rehearsed until after the new cast's run actually begins, Pearce also took over with a couple of hours of personal rehearsal, too, as the show's director Laurence Connor acknowledged after the first preview.

Pearce also went on to perform at that weekend's performances, too. Meanwhile, Cameron Mackintosh hurriedly marshalled forces to announce that Matt Lucas would be returning to the role for six weeks until Carey was fit to return.

In a press release, Mackintosh commented, "Just as I was thanking the gods of the theatre for getting the spectacularly rebuilt Sondheim Theatre open on schedule with our brilliant new cast and production, we heard that our irrepressible Thénardier, Gerard Carey, would not be allowed to perform for several weeks due to a serious problem with his vocal chords. Though obviously a disappointment for him and all of us, I'm thrilled to announce that Matt Lucas has volunteered to abandon his Christmas plans and rejoin Les Mis as Master of the House after his recent triumph in the Staged Concert at the Gielgud Theatre."

It turned out that Carey had pneumonia. But the theatre gods were not smiling on Lucas, either.  As Cameron Mackintosh said in another release yesterday, "To lose one master of the house is unfortunate and two perhaps careless!  I am delighted to be bringing Ian Hughes to the wonderful London Company to partner Josefina Gabrielle in order that Les Misérables can officially open at the Sondheim Theatre next week as planned. I am sure it will be third time lucky!" Hughes, who has been performing the role on tour, takes over from tonight.

But there's no mention of the fact that Mark Pearce has been meanwhile diligently filling the role - up to and including last night, he has now performed the role 14 times. And since no formal announcement is made to the audience, the only acknowledgment he gets is the video board of that night's cast in the foyer, that most members of the audience will not see.

I understand that the show will want to put its best foot forward, especially as they are re-inviting the press to see it again on 16th January, and Hughes - having had a full rehearsal period and already performed it many times on tour - may be a safe pair of hands. But at the very least a thank you to Pearce for his service might have been welcome. The show would literally not have gone on without him, or the understudies that regularly do the same thing at theatres across the West End every night.

Revisiting favourite shows

I'm looking forward to going back to see Les Miserables next week. I can't count the number of times I've seen it now in the 34 years since it first opened at the Barbican (and yes, I did see it there). I saw this new touring incarnation of the show when it originally premiered, also at the Barbican in 2010, when the show was celebrating its 25th anniversary with three separate, but simultaneous, London outings that also saw the original production still playing at the Queen's, and an all-star concert version was staged at the O2 Arena. I've since also seen it on tour in Dublin last year.

There's always something new to see and enjoy each time you see a familiar show or production, whether it be a detail you missed before or a new cast member surprising you.

I also love being able to revisit a show when I'm "off-duty" and able to go for the sheer pleasure of seeing it again. Last week I went back to Girl from the North Country, the extraordinarily textured Conor McPherson play with music and lyrics by Bob Dylan that embeds those songs, both familiar and unfamiliar, into the narrative in a spellbinding way. This is the fourth time I've now seen it, after previously seeing it originally at the Old Vic, then at its previous transfer to the Noel Coward, then in its New York premiere at the Public Theatre in 2018. In March it will finally arrive on Broadway, where I hope to see it yet again.

I never tire of its intricate layering of the songs and the action, as well as a seamlessly integrated cast that now includes such brilliant newcomers to the company such as Katie Brayben, Anna-Jane Casey, Rachel John, Gloria Obianyo, Gemma Sutton and Shaq Taylor. They're all just wonderful. I could see this show again and again, just for a deep wallow in their effortless musicality.

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