A few minutes in Fry the spy's shoes

AND meanwhile, what about the understudy?

His name is Mark Anderson. He was given less than 45 minutes to prepare for the biggest role of his life on Monday, when he made his West End stage debut, filling in for the missing star Stephen Fry.

He arrived at work as late as possible, as understudies tend to, and was expecting another quiet night playing chess in his dressing room at the Albery Theatre. "We just don't expect to go on," said Anderson, who admitted he panicked when first told to replace Fry as the spy George Blake in Simon Gray's new play Cell Mates.

"When I wandered in, the stage doorman told me to see the company manager as soon as possible, and my face just dropped. I knew something was wrong." Fry had the flu, he was told, an explanation that was to change as events became clearer. "I shouted at the manager to leave me alone for five minutes, slammed the door on him and just sat there thinking. Then I pulled myself together, took a deep breath, found him and said: `Right, let's get on with it'."

Half an hour before the play started he was still being measured by the dressers, who adjusted Fry's generously cut stage clothes to fit the understudy. Anderson is thin and balding and, at 34, is three years younger than Fry. Neither are those the only differences between the two actors. While Fry has a flat in St James' and a house in Norfolk, Mark Anderson lives in a small Victorian terraced house in Battersea. Off stage he prefers denims to the more formal clothes favoured by Fry, and he described the star as "more English and more upper".

Both have been in television adverts, but for most of his acting life Anderson has also had to work as a barman to pay the bills. Cell Mates had rescued him from that for a while: he was coy about his wages but said they were above the Equity minimum of £232 a week for West End understudies, plus £20.52 for every performance.

"It has not been a stunning career to date, but I don't think it is for most actors," said Anderson. "All they want out of an understudy is someone who will be rock solid if they have to go on, someone who will know the words, know the moves and have some ability to act."

He did not know Rik Mayall, however, and was introduced shortly before the curtain went up. "He was wonderful. We calmed each other down. But I did stop and think for a moment, `Hang on, that's Rik Mayall on stage with me'."

He remembered all the lines, but the audience drew its breath when Anderson switched on a tape recorder to play back some notes his character had supposedly dictated, and Fry's voice came booming out. "I didn't know that was going to happen, and neither did Rik. It was a difficult moment for both of us."

Anderson appeared calm as we talked, but while making coffee he admitted his hands had been shaking all week with the continual adrenaline. "Over the past few days I've had a little microcosm of the attention Stephen gets, and it has been very difficult. Before he went, I had a glimpse of him that the public wouldn't have. He has looked very tired. He would get to the stage door where people were asking for his autograph and he would be all smiles, but when the door shut and he was in the theatre he would be like..." With that, Anderson rubbed his face to suggest extreme tiredness.

While photographers searched Europe for Fry last week, those members of the audience who didn't ask for their money back watched Anderson coming to terms with his new leading role. He also had to learn to dodge camera crews outside the stage door.

"It's not going to do me any harm," he said before going on-stage on Friday. "I just wish it had been under better circumstances. This has been very difficult, I haven't wanted to gloat. Stephen's fans aren't going to be pleased if he's missing and I'm saying: `Hey, great show, I'm in it'."

He will face another emotional struggle this week when Simon Ward is drafted in as the star replacement for Fry. "It's going to be horrendous. Very difficult to let go. It will have been a very short run. I will move from this enormous dressing room, number two, which is like someone's living room, to a small little room, number 21, I think. Four floors up, the radiator doesn't work and it is freezing."

Understudies spend their time waiting. Despite the myth, and the odd exception, most are not shot to stardom when they stand in at the last minute. The actress Nancy Seabrooke understudied various parts in Agatha Christie's play The Mousetrap for 15 years: she turned up for work 5,880 times but only made it onto the stage on 72 occasions. Anderson's chance came after only three performances.

He said. "I felt guilty about all this attention, but I rang my agent and she said: `It's not your fault. We must take this opportunity'."

Inside story, page 19

Harry Enfield, page 21

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Recruitment Genius: PA

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A PA is required to join a leading provider of...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’