REVIEW / Out of the wings on a prayer: Rhoda Koenig on Richard Crane's Under the Stars, where understudies are given their big break
The poster for Under the Stars shows Regina (Pam Ferris) and Stella (Connie Booth) smiling broadly, leading one to think the play is meant as a comedy. Some humour is also, apparently, intended by having Regina prepare a snack as she recites her lines - pulling a melon out of a carrier bag and chopping it in two while she talks of cleaving a head 'with one fell blow'. But in practice the mood as well as the action is mainly limited to moan, moan, moan. The chief mourner at the funeral of her putative talent is Stella, whose insistent declarations ('I am a professional'; 'I'm not used to being ignored') are simultaneously denied by her petulance, hysteria and disorganisation. When Helen faints and the call goes up for her understudy, Stella spends so much time scuttling about in search of her shawl that Helen manages to pick herself off the floor and carry on.
Regina ('Call me Reg') is less annoying than Stella, whose persistent indignation and unrealistic demands suggest an actress who has been in the business about 32 days. But, like Stella, once her own, unremarkable character has been established, Regina has nothing to do but restate it, an endlessly sensible and phlegmatic foil for Stella's distracted prima donna. (While the two actresses fill these parts capably, one can't help thinking the play might be more amusing if they switched.) For all Stella's frustration, she has no plot - to poison or kidnap her rival, say - and neither does Crane. Nor does he explore the two women's lives, revealing details that are touching or bizarre. What is really bizarre is that we learn nothing about what Stella and Regina do outside the theatre, or anything about their past. As a result, watching Under the Stars is a bit like being trapped on a bus next to one of those women who insist on relating all their grievances to you.
The play wakes up briefly in the second act, with the arrival of The Known Actress who has been hired to cover for the ailing Helen, to Stella's fury. Penny Morrell plays this glittering and loathsome creature to the hilt (held by long red fingernails), turning Regina's nickname into 'wretch' and asking rhetorically, 'Will you hold me, dear? And I'm going to thrash, is that all right?' Yet TKA soon becomes routinely vain and brittle; she much more closely resembles a TV star than a tragedienne. Likewise, the condescending director, in black leather and with a small, nasty beard, comes from classic theatrical cliche rather than the world of classical theatre.
Greenwich Theatre, Crooms Hill, SE10 (081-858 7755) to 28 Aug
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Rarest Beanie Baby of them all could be sold for £62,500 on eBay
- 2 Ben Affleck asked TV chiefs to hide slave-owning ancestry, new hacked Sony emails published by Wikileaks claim
- 3 Driving while dehydrated can be just as dangerous as drink driving, study suggests
- 4 Farmer told to tear down mock-Tudor castle after hiding construction behind hay bales
- 5 One Direction: Louis Tomlinson launching his own record label, has already 'signed two acts'
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
One Direction: Louis Tomlinson launching his own record label, has already 'signed two acts'
Tidal CEO leaves Jay Z's music streaming service only a month after it launched
Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens: Luke Skywalker actor Mark Hamill admits he was suspicious of 'Star Trek guy' JJ Abrams
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate