Oh my god. How did I not know about understudy runs before last week? Well, as a relatively recent convert to the full-on joy of theatre it's probably not that surprising, but now that I do know I know I'll be attending many more.
Written into many performers' contracts, understudy runs aren't a rehearsal, they aren't just one person getting to play the part they might play if someone gets sick, this is a full-on, everyone chipping in, proper professional performance of a show. They're an exciting opportunity for the audience to see what a different cast can bring to a show, for the cast to play out the entire piece they've been rehearsing for an audience, usually for the very first time, and for agents and casting directors to get a good look at the actor for possibly the only time in a run.
Understudy runs are completely free - the only requirement is knowing when and where to turn up. They're not publicised, hence why I only just discovered them, and are usually around matinee time on a non-matinee day, but they occur regularly in the West End and on Broadway, it seems. A while back, actor Matt Ryan spoke to WalesOnline about his performance in Hamlet as Horatio and about understudying for Jude Law. He called understudy runs like "putting someone else's jacket on" and said it was "strange but brilliant" to do an understudy run.
I was lucky enough to see Six Degrees Of Separation on Friday after discovering the concept through Facebook. It's a show I'd been pondering seeing but due to mixed reviews hadn't got around to booking for. I wasn't sure what to expect, and it did take some time to get going, but overall I had a really enjoyable time. It was very funny, quite dark in places and kept the attention well. While it's frustrating that there were no programmes available in order to figure out exactly who was who, the cast's dedication and hard work cannot be faulted. It would be unfair to review the performance due to this, so I'm afraid you won't be getting any more than that on the show.
Indeed, seeing a show with an audience who are all simply there for the performers, who are mostly theatre people so know exactly how to behave in a theatre and who provide exactly the right amount of appreciation is a real thrill, and not one that usually occurs. All the understudies were just as polished and professional as those actually cast in the parts, bringing real humour and depth to their characters. There were no caricatures, and this is borne out by the strong audience reaction and feedback on the Facebook group - words of praise included 'excellent' and 'brilliant'.
Check out the Understudy Runs In The West End group for further information.