REVIEW / Out of the wings on a prayer: Rhoda Koenig on Richard Crane's Under the Stars, where understudies are given their big break

'YOU'RE going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star]' It's the call to glory that every understudy dreams of, while thinking that if Ruby Keeler could be a star not only could he or she but anyone. The ladies in waiting in Richard Crane's Under the Stars, however, haven't gone anywhere for quite some time. Regina has spent 25 years sitting in her dressing-room on the chance that 'the Dame' might literally break a leg; the likewise inappropriately named Stella has been 32 years in the business without making an impression. As two famous actresses create on-stage magic and off-stage scandal, Regina and Stella endlessly rehearse their roles as, respectively, Clytemnestra and Helen, with only the downtrodden assistant director for an audience.

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

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport