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Ceili O’Connor in The Understudy and Friends

The UnderstudyThe premise in The Understudy and Friends is pretty straightforward. Ceili O’Connor is an understudy who has been an understudy since she graduated from ArtsEd in 2010, and has never, for miscellaneous reasons, notably principals who turn up for work prior to each and every performance without fail, played the various roles which she has understudied, in front of a paying audience. At least, the premise was pretty straightforward, until it was made clear that Ceili actually has been on stage, and even occasionally in a principal role, but always for ‘fringe’ or off-West End productions.

She’s not one for breaking an audience in gently, with a showstopping opening number. After the customary introductions about how lovely we (the audience) all are and how great it is that we’re all here, she spoke about going into a West End production of The Fantasticks, which has been running in a small venue in New York City for well over half a century. I saw that London production, and despite the likes of Hadley Fraser and Clive Rowe being in the cast, I hated it. But the salient point here is that days before understudy Ceili was scheduled to go on as the principal was to attend a wedding, the show played its final performance having posted early closing notices.

A lot of the stories are fairly similar, insofar that ‘events, dear girl, events’ (to misquote Harold Macmillan) repeatedly thwart Ceili’s chances to shine, and it is evident she is a victim of successive sets of circumstances rather than a lack of talent. Hers is a fairly deep and velvety singing voice, very clear and one that one could listen to all night. I am not sure if she has done an album – I assume not, as no recording was mentioned – but she should consider the possibility of putting one together. Some of the musical arrangements to the songs featured in this concert are unique, and there is an audience out there that would enjoy the alternative renderings.

So many shows are “my favourite!”, or so Ceili declares with an enthusiastic and warm thrill, and more often than Sir Bruce Forsyth used to tell participants on BBC Television’s Strictly Come Dancing, “You’re my favourite!” But if it’s an evening of the famous musical theatre standards you’re after, this isn’t the show for you: an early featuring of a tune from Waitress The Musical, a new Broadway production introduces this work to a London audience. There is definitely something for everyone in a well-structured gig encompassing a broad range of music styles. There’s even a Billy Joel medley.

A song I had never heard before, which I later discovered is the title track from the third studio album by American singer Ariana Grande, “Dangerous Woman”, with riffs and harmonies thanks to the services of Eloise Davies and Emma Kingston, on stage singing alongside Ceili, was met with a roar of approval from an audience that included a considerable number of fellow theatricals. I’ve had a listen to the Ariana Grande version on YouTube (a staggering 185 million views at the time of writing) and, on balance, I prefer the arrangement from The Understudy and Friends.

Some considerable thought has clearly gone into putting this concert together. It is not altogether perfect – some on several occasions, the setting up for the following number took longer than it ought to have done, and a long spoken word section that partly involved reading out some comments from secondary school classmates that were written down when they were still at school seemed out of place, if anything because it had little to do with being an understudy on the West End stage.

A jazzed-up version of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ seemed very apt for what had become a late night cabaret act – the final number included an appearance from Oliver Savile, who had hotfooted it to Shaftesbury Avenue from the Apollo Victoria, having played Fiyero in Wicked that same night. If Ceili O’Connor, Oliver Savile and Emily Tierney had not said they were unrehearsed for the show’s finale, I don’t think I would have known judged on that performance.

A pleasant evening, giving its audience some intriguing insights into what it’s like to be an understudy. Laced with plenty of humour, the anecdotes serve as a subliminal reminder to see the funny side of things, even when ‘things’ are not quite going our way. As Monty Python’s Life of Brian puts it: “Always look on the bright side of life.” An enjoyable and worthwhile experience.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Understudy [uhn-der-stuhd-ee] verb (used with object), understudied, understudying to learn (a role) in order to replace the regular actor or actress when necessary.
This is a role Ceili knows and loves. She has had the opportunity to understudy a couple of the most iconic roles in the West End and on UK tours. However, such is the nature of understudying, Ceili never got the chance to play those parts in front of a live audience. In The Understudy, Ceili will be performing some of those iconic songs. After all, she’s well rehearsed and can finally get the chance to tick them off the bucket list.

With Somewhere over the Rainbow, Never Fall in love with an Elf to Jackson 5’s ABC. The Understudy promises to be an eclectic mix of good music with a few surprises along the way.

Ceili recently performed at Danielle Hopes New York Debut at 54 Below for her album launch, Nicki Wade, BadGirls at The Union, u/s Jovie in Elf the Musical Original UK cast, u/s Eva Peron in UK Tour Evita, The Fox in The Little Prince workshop at The Savoy Theatre, u/s Dorothy Original London Cast Wizard of Oz at The London Palladium, u/s Luisa in The Original London Cast The Fantasticks at The Duchess Theatre, Polly in Crazy For You, Upstairs at The Gatehouse, Marty in Grease, Bronowski Productions, Ljubljana Festival , Bobby Cronin Concrete Jungle Cast recording, Words Shared With Friends, Robert Gould. Wizard of Oz Cast Recording. Guest at Hadley and Friends at Waterloo East Theatre.

2.5 hours (including 30 minutes interval)
Musical Director – Tim Evans.

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