The rise of the understudy: A crisis on stage, starring a cast of total unknowns

Audiences are unhappy about the vanishing big names in the West End

Understudies, the dependable but largely invisible actors who provide a safety net for West End stars, are being catapulted out of the dressing room and into the spotlight, as growing numbers of stars are unable to keep up with rigorous performance timetables.

Illness, strained vocal chords and additional performances, coupled with high demand for star-studded casts, are contributing to the phenomenon, leaving audiences who have forked out hefty sums for shows increasingly disgruntled.

The problem has led to a flurry of complaints to The Stage, the actors' trade journal, from theatregoers angry and disappointed by the absence of top-billed stars. One, Paul Younger, who attended a production of Wicked earlier this year, only to find understudies going on, said: "When you pay top dollar for a West End theatre seat to see a well-known actor, you have every right to feel in some way cheated if that actor fails to show. How would you feel if you bought a Wembley ticket for a Take That reunion show, only to discover a tribute band on stage?" Some theatregoers have accused West End theatres of a running "two-tier star systems", with understudies going on for matinees. Others have suggested young performers lack the stamina to endure the tough performing schedules.

The actress Gina Beck has leapt to the defence of non-performing stars and their understudies, however. They are an "essential part of the theatre scene", she insists, and it is "naive" to imagine shows would be cancelled when there are "highly skilled understudies waiting in the wings to go on – it's their job".

She argues it is inevitable that performers get sick or take holidays, but says the "show must go on and theatregoers are entitled to value for money, so that's where understudies step in". She dismisses the suggestion that understudies are "second-rate performers", saying that, instead, they bring "energy, enthusiasm and a different approach to the part which often enlivens the whole performance.

"I can understand producers who, seduced by the enormous promotional power of television, seed their shows with famous names. Undoubtedly, this attracts many people to the West End who would not otherwise come, but they come with a different expectation to traditional theatregoers. Should their favourite not appear for some reason, their unfulfilled expectation makes them very unhappy."

She adds: "True appreciation of the role of an understudy requires proper respect for the time-honoured tradition that the show is bigger than any one performer."

Part of the problem is believed to stem from celebrities who have not had the training to handle big performance runs, particularly when singing is required. The former EastEnders actress Martine McCutcheon was among figures panned by the press: after taking the leading role in My Fair Lady, voice strain and throat infections meant she was absent for a large part of the run.

Nicola Burns, a leading producer, called for a "sense of perspective": It is very unusual for last-minute changes and actors are people – not machines. They are just as susceptible to illness as anyone else."

The Society of London Theatre says the decision to cast an understudy normally rests with the show's director and producer. It is at the discretion of the company how and when they inform their audiences. Decisions can be made as late as 20 minutes before the curtain goes up, with a programme flysheet or announcement from the stage flagging up the change.

Last year, the Royal Opera House made history after it opted to refund 20 per cent of ticket prices when the tenor set to star in Handel's Tamerlano was taken ill at the last minute with abdominal pain. That star was, however, Placido Domingo.

One set of people stands to benefit from the friction: the understudies themselves. History shows how dreams can be made in just one fortunate strike. When Laurence Olivier came down with appendicitis in 1966 during a Royal National Theatre production of Dance of Death, an unknown figure stepped into the spotlight and never looked back. He was, as the world would later discover, Anthony Hopkins.

Additional research by Kelly Virdee

Equus

Out Richard Griffiths

In Colin Haigh

There was a stunned silence in the auditorium of the Gielgud Theatre in March 2007, when Richard Griffiths, playing the psychologist, failed to appear in Peter Shaffer's play, due to flu. There were further red faces when his understudy appeared not to have learnt his lines, and read the script from a notebook.

Tamerlano

Out Placido Domingo

In Kurt Streit

Top German tenor Streit stepped in for performances between 5 and 20 March last year, when Domingo fell ill. Usually, producers defend their stand-ins with the line, "No individual is greater than the company." In a rare step, the Royal Opera House offered a 20 per cent refund on tickets, which cost as much as £210.

Entertaining Mr Sloane

Out Mathew Horne and Imelda Staunton

In Fergus March and Sharon Eckman

When Gavin & Stacey star Mathew Horne collapsed on stage in April 2009, his co-star Imelda Staunton is said to have addressed the audience and asked whether there was a doctor in the house. In the same week, she was forced to pull out of the matinee herself, suffering with a virus. Tickets cost £45 plus.

Sound of Music

Out Connie Fisher

In Sophie Bould

After Fisher was struck down with a vocal injury in May 2007, Bould stepped up from her role as Liesl to play Maria for 12 performances. The 24-year-old was propelled into the limelight, and greeted with rave reviews. Tickets cost between £15 and £40.

The Philadelphia story

Out Kevin Spacey

In Adrian Lukis

In 2005, Spacey was at the centre of a row after theatregoers bought tickets at London's Old Vic only to discover he would not be appearing. He left the role in mid-June for six weeks, to film Superman Returns. The part of C K Dexter Haven was filled by Lukis. Tickets cost between £10 and £40.

Love Never dies

Out Sierra Boggess

In Celia Graham

Graham had an ensemble role in the musical while US soprano Boggess, as Christine, wowed crowds with her Olivier-nominated performance. When Boggess returned home earlier this month, Graham stepped up, impressing both Andrew Lloyd Webber and producer Bill Kenwright. Tickets: £25-£67.50

Treats

Out Billie Piper

In Antonia Lewis

Billie Piper missed a preview performance after collapsing shortly before she was due to appear on stage. The theatre manager, who was unaware that she was suffering from cystitis, sent her to hospital. Her absence allowed Antonia Lewis, 25, and previously the assistant stage manager, to make her West End debut.

Oliver!

Out Rowan Atkinson

In Tim Laurenti

Cast in the leading role of Fagin, Atkinson required hernia surgery in March 2009, passing the baton to Laurenti, who was playing the Punch and Judy man. Luckily, Laurenti did not have to go on as Mr Sowerberry at the same time: he was second understudy for that role too. Tickets cost £25 to £72.50.

Wicked

Out Cassandra Compton

In Zoë Rainey

Producers warned the musical's audiences that leading lady Compton was taking a belated Christmas break earlier this year. However, ticket-holders were furious to find four further principal roles played by understudies. Tickets cost £15 to £65.

My Fair Lady

Out Martine McCutcheon

In Alexandra Jay and Laura Michelle Kelly

When McCutcheon lost her voice in March 2001 in Trevor Nunn's revival of the musical, the leading role was filled so successfully by Jay and, later, in 2003, by Kelly, that it accelerated both their careers. As her understudy, Jay put in more performances than McCutcheon. Tickets cost £25 to £80.

Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
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 iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit