Thursday, 16 August 2018

FEATURE: When understudies save the day!



Understudies are a vital part of what keeps shows all across the world going every night. Over the past few years, we've had stories all over the press about understudies taking on lead roles in extreme circumstances and absolutely smashing it. Here are just a few of the recent stories we love (All with happy endings!), we'd like to thank these performers for not only being amazing but also taking the time to chat to us briefly for this article. And make sure to check out the bottom of the page with a breakdown of the past understudies who are astounding audiences all across the UK every night! 

Jennifer Caldwell 


When sickness hits a cast, sometimes dramatic solutions have to happen! Knights of the Rose, a new musical running at the Arts Theatre, had a wave of sickness in the cast and when an understudy is already covering someone else, whats happens?! Jennifer Caldwell was working in the Box Office and was asked for help from the Producer, she agreed to go on at 7pm and by 7.30pm was on stage! 

"When the producer asked if I could possibly step up and perform in the show I was, I think it's safe to say, apprehensive, however, adrenaline and excitement took over pretty quickly. 

The company I had around me are some of the most talented people you could ever meet which could have made things pretty daunting, but, everyone was incredibly supportive and made it so easy to slot in to the show. I couldn't wish for a better group of people to be around."

She has now been made a permanent member of the cast and features as a swing. 

"I think, as performers, we should always be willing to accept any challenge as, in such an unpredictable industry, you never know if this kind of opportunity could arise again."

Steph Parry


Steph recently finished playing Donna in Mamma Mia on the Royal Caribbean before landing the role of the standby for Dorothy Black and Maggie Jones in 42nd Street at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. She was called upon when Mamma Mia (at the Novello Theatre) needed someone to step in mid show for the lead role, Donna, when the understudy suffered a serious injury. 

"It was such a surreal night, there was a moment just before I stepped out onstage where I thought “what the hell am I about to do?!” But I walked out to such a huge cheer from the audience that I instantly knew they were behind me and it felt so awesome!" 

She completed the show to great acclaim and was promoted from stand by to lead as Dorothy Black in 42nd Street.

Natasha Barnes


Natasha was cast as Emma and understudy to the lead role of Fanny Brice, played by Sheridan Smith, at the Menier Chocolate Factory and then later at the Savoy Theatre. Natasha would make her Fanny debut at the Menier before performing the role every Monday night in the West End. Sheridan became indisposed later in the West End run and Natasha stepped in to temporarily take over the role. She went on to alternate the role on the UK tour of the production with herself and Sheridan Smith alternating venues.

Cellen Chugg Jones


Cellen was recently cast in the ensemble of Chess at the London Collesium, he understudied Tim Howar in the role of Freddie Trumper. On the first preview performance of the show Tim had to leave in the interval due to his wife giving birth. Laurence Connor, the director of the show, came on stage in the interval to announce Cellen would take over the role with no rehearsal.

"I can't remember it very well. It was just that rush of adrenaline to try and remember everything as I'd never had a rehearsal.

I couldn't of done it without the full cast and crew support and the fantastic swings Callum and Jen. Also massive shout out to Nikki Woollaston our resident director who was right by my side through it all! I couldn't of done the show without her calm and awesome presence"

We discussed with Cellen the importance of understudies and swings in productions and how vital they are to make the show go on. But he wants to also make sure the backstage crew aren't forgotten, as they are a vital cog in the show machine. 

"I'd just like to reiterate how covers and swings are a massive foundation to a show going on but for audiences to not forget every one else backstage that have to pull out all the stops. It's a real family and a team" 

Ria Jones


Ria Jones has just completed a very successful run as Norma Desmond on the UK touring production of Sunset Boulevard, but this wasn't the start of her journey with the show. She originated the role at just 24 years old in a workshop and was cast as the stand by for Norma Desmond at the London Coliseum, where it was being played by Glenn Close. When Ms Close became ill Ria went on to perform the role 4 times to great acclaim.

Marisha Wallace


The London production of Dreamgirls was swamped with cast illness near the beginning of the run, just a few months after opening, around the festive period, Amber Riley who was playing the lead role of Effie White was diagnosed with pneumonia and Marisha Wallace was flown over from Broadway to help cover the role alongside other alternate Karen Mav. She then went on to stay with he production and eventually took over the role when Amber Riley left the production.

We asked Marisha if she had any advice for anyone in a situation like she'd been and she said "Sometimes you can't predict how things will happen for you but if you put your head down and do the work everything else will fall into place. Just do the work. And what's for you will never pass you."

Ryan Pidgen


Ryan was cast as the understudy to Matt Lucas in the Chichester Festival Theatre production of Me and My Girl. After a successful opening to previews Matt Lucas became ill and lost his voice, being told by doctors to not speak for 48 hours. Ryan then took over the role and performed in the lead on press night with two hours rehearsal.

"When your surrounded by a cast, company and creative team as amazing as these guys - it was just an honour to be performing with and for them... As an understudy it really touches me that Daniel Evans and Chichester Theatre trusted and believed in me enough to do it- and the whole experience, which is every actors nightmare, was just incredible." 

Fellow understudy and day saver, Steph Parry said "I’m so thrilled that Ryan Pidgen has received so much recognition for stepping in for Matt Lucas recently; it’s yet another example of how hard work and tenacity pays off."

When asked about what he would say to his fellow understudies in the industry "They certainly have my utmost respect and i think now understudies are starting to get more recognition on a larger scale I hope everyone gets to work in an environment as supportive as I am currently- because it’s an amazing skill and often a thankless task so let’s hope the industry starts to take more notice and these people are given the recognition and praise they deserve"

Luke Bayer


Luke was cast as a swing and understudy to the title role in Everyones Talking about Jamie in the West End transfer of the Sheffield Crucible production. In June 2018 he was on holiday from the show and received a call to say he needed to go on that evening for the role. A dash back to London saw him pull into London at 7pm, which meant a massive rush to the theatre to make it for the curtain on time. Luke becomes the official Alternate Jamie from the 6th October.


Other Understudies who are killing it on the West End! 

Alice Fearn 

Originally cast as the Stand by for Elphaba, she was promoted to full time lead and is going into her second year as the lead role and is one of the best Elphabas we've ever seen!


Bradley Jaden 

Bradley previously understudied the role of Enjolras before being promoted full time, he now steps back into the show as Javert. 

Rebecca McKinnis 

Recently took over the role of Margret in Everybody's Talking About Jamie after having previously covered the role. We saw her in the role and she is absolutely incredible! 

Durone Stokes 

Originating the role of Little Albert and 1st cover CC White in the West End production of Dreamgirls, Durone took over the role of CC full time and still remains with the production. 

Georgia Ware 

Previously the understudy for Meg, she was recently made the part full time in the last cast change at the Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty's Theatre and continues in the role. 

Jay Perry 

Jay is playing the role of Berry Gordy in the West End production of Motown having previously understudied the role the previous year. 

Helen Woolf

Currently playing the role of Glinda on the UK tour of Wicked, she has previously understudied the role in the original UK tour and in the West End production. 

James Howard 

James is appearing in the London production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Palace Theatre, he is playing Draco Malfoy having been the understudy previously. 

Georgia Louise 

Graduating from Mountview and heading straight into a West End show, Georgia was in the ensemble of Kinky Boots and covered the role of Lauren. She went straight on to Mamma Mia where she's leading the company as Sophie. 

Tosh Wanogho-Maud 

Tosh was part of the original company of Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre, he later took over the role of Jimmy Early from Olivier Award Winner Adam J. Bernard and he remains in the company. 

Rosa O' Reilly 

Rosa took over the role of Nessarose in the London production of Wicked, having previously understudied the role since September 2016. 

Simon-Anthony Rhoden 

Simon started in the West End production of Kinky Boots as a Swing in the original company, he then took over the lead role of Lola from Olivier Award winner Matt Henry and remains until the show closes. 

Jermaine Woods 

After covering the role of Iago in the London production of Aladdin, Jermaine recently took over the role full time and is currently playing it at the Prince Edward Theatre. 

Kimmy Edwards 

Kimmy was part of the original company of Dreamgirls in London where she covered Deena and Michelle, in the first cast change she took over the role of Michelle and remains in the production. 

Dom Simpson 

After graduating Drama School, he went straight over to Broadway to Stand-by for the role of Elder Price in the Book of Mormon, he is currently playing the role full time in the West End production where he makes his West End debut.
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