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)

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