Lloyd Evans Lloyd Evans

Like a project the BBC might have considered 30 years ago and turned down: The Understudy reviewed

Plus: two cobweb-thin online monologues from Paines Plough and the Bush Theatre

Lizzie Muncey recording her role in The Understudy from home

Hats off to the Lawrence Batley Theatre for producing a brand-new full-length show on-line. Stephen Fry, with avuncular fruitiness, narrates a dramatisation of David Nicholls’s novel The Understudy, published in 2005. It’s a back-stage comedy about a newly written sex romp inspired by the life of Lord Byron.

The show, predictably enough, is entitled, Mad, Bad And Dangerous To Know. Here’s an excerpt. Byron is lying athwart his naked Italian mistress when the Muse summons him to draft a sonnet. ‘I must write here,’ he declares, ‘between a pair of pert peaches nestled.’ This doesn’t quite catch the tone of period drama in its present form. A modern playwright tackling Byron would want to focus on his sexual fluidity, his reputation as a molester and his record of culturally misappropriating the habits and clothing of communities to which he didn’t belong.

The purpose of Mad, Bad And Dangerous To Know is to offer a star vehicle to international heart-throb Josh Harper, known as ‘the 12th sexiest man in the world’. Josh is an amusing caricature — a tactless, greedy, narcissistic philanderer with a good line in self-justification. ‘Ninety per cent of the time I’m 100 per cent monogamous.’ He hopes the LBGTQ community will flock to see his Byron. ‘Got to keep my adoring gays happy.’ And he doesn’t intend to explore his subject’s character beyond ‘milking the shit out of that club foot’.

But Josh isn’t the subject of the story. Instead, the narrative focuses on the travails of his understudy, Stephen, a meek dullard whom Josh mocks openly during rehearsals. ‘Balls it up as often as you like, you’ll get it right eventually.’

It feels like a project the BBC might have considered 30 years ago and turned down

After a tiresome introduction, which lasts about as long as Newsnight, the plot finally begins.

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