You can’t help but feel sorry for the main characters in Richard Crane’s Under the Stars. I mean, even the title on the programme doesn’t capitalise it. Flagging their unimportance I suppose. Understudies. The acting folks who sit in the dressing room, waiting and rehearsing, while the big stars strut their stuff on the stage. Warbling here are two ageing theatrical divas manfully spouting Helen of Troy through the tannoy. Extremely well done I have to say by Angela Stone and Norma Jenkins. Faces elegantly matched voices at their curtain call. But they are just the famous backdrop to dressing room traumas of the unwanted and unloved. Echoes of Sybil Thorndike and Edith Evans they may be but the real stars of Company of Ten’s studio production are that dressing room intense and precious Stella and the cynical and world weary Regina. Understudies both, but as far removed from each other as their incessant backdrop Dames.
The weakness of Richard Crane’s play is that it does not involve you in any journeys of discovery. We know little more about the main characters at the end than we did at the beginning. Desperate actress Stella internalises with manic intensity and Regina knits. The situation, understudying the stars, is all. Brief codas of a life beyond the stage rarely intruded for too long. I think the Stella character had an illegitimate child but it was never so important as an unfinished costume or a reconsidered inflection. A shallow picture of a shallow character given comic potential by her world weary and prosaic foil. If Stella screams for stardom and recognition, Regina merely wishes for a quiet life of teabags and tuna rolls and much of the play is their constant and disparate theatrical banter.
That I enjoyed the evening so much is purely down to the performances. Suzie Major was a magnificent Stella. Rich in vocal delivery and physical dexterity she was very much the greyhound in the traps bursting for her moment of fame on the track. You knew she wouldn’t get it, never more so than when Dianne Pickard’s equally magnificent Known Actress flaunted her bit, you just wondered when the truth would hit her. Probably at the moment when she, along with most of the audience, suppressed their desire to add in their own throttle to Miss Pickard’s throat. A director’s ‘name’ to replace a wobbly star is the knife that cuts all understudies hearts. Except those that serenely knit.
Katherine Barry and that knitting did not try to match Ms Major in the acting stakes. Her Regina, twenty five years an understudy to the same star, was very much the calming water to Stella’s theatrical fizz. Comic lines abounded, all delivered with deadpan sincerity, and if Ms Barry didn’t flesh out her Regina too much she was nevertheless very good. And, at the end, every inch the Greek heroine.
It was all a bit episodic and I would have liked some music to relieve the numerous scenes but on the small, realistic, studio set I could not help but admire the performances. Brian Stewart worked his cast well, I was going to say knitted but we have had enough of that, and gave us well crafted support from revolting impresario leather boy P.Q. (Philip Reardon) and harassed trainee director Charles (Andrew Baird). Mr Baird’s natural and easy style as the theatre work boy was a constant delight.
So a first blog from me for Company of Ten. Time they got tainted with my intrusive brush. Suspect it won’t be the last as from past experience I knew this was a classy company. With this slight but interesting play they proved it with consummate acting style. Not bad for understudies.