The Audience starring Kristin Scott Thomas and previously Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II is due to close soon. I’ve seen both productions several times and was privileged to see a particularly special performance shortly after the General Election. The often unsung heroes of theatre are the understudies, and most West End shows have regular understudy runs. I caught Scott Thomas’s understudy in The Audience and also the understudy’s understudy. Sadly, neither are nominated but with voting for Understudy of the Year currently underway, I just wanted to write a review which took into account the remarkable achievements of these people.
Their dedication to the profession is extraordinary. Big touring productions take understudies with them around the country. Their job is to sit back stage, night after night, while the action goes on in front of them. Even the compensations for the hard life on the road – the nightly applause, the autograph hunters and selfie-takers at the stage door – are not theirs to enjoy unless a generous producer gives them a go on stage from time to time.
Charlotte Moore, who understudies Scott Thomas at the Apollo, did the entire previous run also as Mirren’s understudy. She has performed several understudy runs and also stepped in twice when Scott Thomas did not perform. I caught one of those. Moore has been more fortunate than many in that she had a part to play of her own, as Bobo MacDonald and the private secretary, so I had already seen her in that role. Her Scottish accent was perfect, as was her manner – and of course her natural ability to handle the real live corgis.
One challenge for the understudy is the reaction of a surprised audience when the “star” they might have come specially to see is announced as absent. I was sitting near the front and could see from the light in the Moore’s expressive eyes how this was transformed into a challenge that sparked a greater performance rather than one that prompted fear or anxiety. Goodness I could never be an actor. How do they do it? Hundreds of people in a packed theatre who’ve planned their weekend expecting to see one person as the Queen, and along comes another, and it is you in that unforgiving spotlight.
Moore is a successful and gifted “triple threat” performer who can sing beautifully as well as act and is rarely out of work. Previous productions include Rain Man, Carousel, Birthday Suite and See How They Run, Boeing Boeing, Cabaret and Pippin, Ursula and many more. She also does commercials, voice overs and video games.
My heart went out to her as she came on stage – and then it went out to the entire play because I quickly forgot who was playing the Queen, or anyone else, as once again I was enrapt into Peter Morgan’s clever script and the brilliant performances not just of Moore but of the entire cast as these famous figures from history came so convincingly alive in front of us.
It was particularly “amusing” post-election because of the new lines, where David Cameron in his post-election meeting with the Queen is so obviously surprised and delighted to have won the election. So certain was he that he was going to lose, he confesses, Samantha had been preparing to move out of Number 10.
Moore caught perfectly the cut-glass accent of the Queen. Poised and dignified, she transitioned from the younger adult to the older Elizabeth with the confidence born of class, in the sense that she is a class actor. She didn’t quite purr. But Moore’s beautifully alive features hinted as much as the words she was allowed to say at sadness and tension over Suez, annoyance over Thatcher, bubbling joy over Harold Wilson and at last, a relieved and slightly tired “one of us” rightness of David Cameron. Having lived this play for two entire, long runs, Moore knows it backwards, frontwards and sideways. This is the unexpected bonus of having a long-serving understudy thrust into the spotlight. Like the Queen with her prime ministers, these actors know inside out the part they must perform. So much of what makes the difference between men and women actors who become stars, and those who work all their lives but do not achieve that level of fame, is down to luck. I’ve said it before, but it always astounds me, in the West End and on the fringe, just how much talent is out there. For actors such as Moore, with enormous ability and a lifetime of achievement to back it up, letting them do the starring role is like letting a bottled genie onto the stage for a couple of hours. The pent-up passion brings a specially bright energy and intensity to the performance. I’ve seen her before as Bobo and one of her great gifts as an actor it seems to me is this great generosity of heart and spirit. You could feel how she forgave the audience its natural disappointment, that the audience then forgave her for not being Scott Thomas, that she then gave her entire self to the Queen.
So she was brilliant and deserves to be known for this brilliance. And so now a word too for her own understudy, Izzy Meikle-Small. Normally, she is one of three child actors playing the Young Elizabeth and has her own, child-like upper class vowels to master. But as Moore’s understudy, she had also to get a handle on Bobo MacDonald’s rich Scottish accent. Although Meikle-Small has had film roles including in Snow White and the Huntsman, this is her professional stage debut. It is a rare sight, to catch a child actor playing an adult. Normally it is the other way around. Again, like Moore, she was absorbed so completely into her part that soon I forgot it was not really Bobo. She talked as an adult, thought as an adult, behaved as an adult. She was an adult on that stage, while the woman who normally plays her nannie, played her as an adult. This dream like quality of disguise, of masque and charade, actors playing each other playing others, complemented an entire performance that was profoundly moving and gloriously funny. This has to be one of the best shows that’s even been on in London’s West End, and I hope it comes back again, with new updates in the script, to tell us once more what’s going behind the scenes on in real life and to give us glimpses into fantasy and reality, on and off the stage.
Review by Ruth Gledhill
The Apollo Theatre London
Booking From: 21st April 2015
Booking Until: 25th July 2015
Evenings: Monday to Saturday 7.30pm
Matinees: Wednesday and Saturday 2.30pm
Friday 31st October 2014