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