A proper trailer for Peter and Alice
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Interview: What it's like being an understudy for a West End play (Peter and Alice)

I was flicking through the Peter and Alice programme and noticed a familiar face among the understudies. The face belongs to Henry Everett with whom I'd worked some 10 years ago; he left journalism to train to be an actor.

Back stage at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Photo: Rev Stan

It got me thinking about what it's actually like being an understudy, always wondering if you'll get to go on in front of an audience, what it's like if you do go on and how the understudies work with the cast? Fortunately, Henry was happy to answer to my barrage of questions over a pot of chamomile tea between today's matinee and evening performances.

Henry is the understudy for two parts: Lewis Carroll and James Barrie. He'd been reluctant to audition having understudied a couple of times before but was persuaded to by his agent. A week or so ago he got to put all his preparation into practice when Derek Riddell who plays Barrie was ill. This is what he had to say about being an understudy and that call.

On rehearsals:
"The understudies watch the rehearsals picking up the blocking and any advice the director (Michael Grandage) gives the actors. Then after the actors have left we spend two hours with the assistant director rehearsing.

"You have to know the blocking as a bare minimum but you are given leeway to add in some of your own performance. Inevitably having watched the actors working you have their performance buzzing in your head. But you have to be ready. We rehearse once a week and I go through my lines once a day in my head.

"I sometimes watch the performance either from the wings or I'll stand at the back."


Going on:
"I got a call at 10.30 in the morning to say Derek wasn't very well and it was likely I'd have to go on but they would confirm at 1.30. I was very excited and when the 1.30 call came started going through my lines with my wife. Had a bit of an out of body experience at that point. Then we went for a walk and I felt amazingly calm.

"Got to the theatre early and went through some of the scenes on stage with the cast. Then when the time came I actually went on feeling quite calm and I'll probably never have that level of calm again; I had so much fun on stage.

"The other actors become more alert as you are an alien presence in familiar territory. I'll always remember the moment at the curtain call when I was stood next to Dame Judi (Alice Liddell) and she squeezed my hand and said 'well done'. Then the moment I stepped off stage the stage manager handed me a bottle of champagne.

"I had managed to get my wife a ticket so she could see me and I happened to have a friend watching that night too but didn't tell her I was going on stage so it was a nice surprise for her."

The highs and lows of understudy life:
"The lows are boredom and frustration, a sense of not actually doing anything for your career although, having performed now, I've got rid of a certain amount of pent-up frustration from wanting to perform. Although you are encouraged to create the role yourself it is essentially somebody else's.

"The high's are being part of the company. Everyone is so nice and friendly and we all go out together."

Related posts:

First thoughts on Peter and Alice

Second thoughts on Peter and Alice

What the critics thought

Peter and Alice trailer

Why you should go and see a public understudy run