Nestling in the shadow of Cape Town’s legendary unfinished bridge lies the Waterfront Theatre School which recently opened an intimate, creative space: the Galloway Theatre. This is the setting for Canned Rice’s debut production Understudy Blues.
Opening night was abuzz with anticipation for the one-woman cabaret extravaganza directed by Richard Wright-Firth and starring Candice van Litsenborgh, accompanied by Drew Rienstra on piano. As the title suggests, the play chronicles the lamentable travails of an actress who finds herself persistently cast as an understudy. Always the bridesmaid and never the bride, she pines for the day she will take to the boards… if only the lead would break a leg literally and not just metaphorically.
Throwing a much-needed spotlight on this prerequisite of theatre performance, the show is a tribute to the underrated actor. Understudy Blues gives the much overlooked stand-in a chance to shine through the telling of the story, an idea further extended on the posters adorning the walls of the theatre. These posters chronicle the stories of real life understudies, along with anecdotes from actors thanking their stand-ins. The stories range from heart-warming to horrific and add a personal touch to the production. Blank pages lie in wait for any fellow understudies who may be in the audience and wish to share their stories with the world.
The butterflies that flit through the stomach prior to a show are not always confined to the actors. I know I am not alone in approaching one-man/woman shows with trepidation, because it takes an awful lot of skill and courage to pull them off. And in this case van Litsenborgh not only has to sing for much of the performance, but faces the challenge of musical numbers which leap between varying genres, styles and characters. Thrillingly, she waltzes through it with aplomb, displaying range, sparkle and, above all, a delightful comic wit.
Everything on stage – from the ambient lighting and captivating music to the changing costumes and plethora of props – combine to faithfully and humorously reflect the drama of theatre and the actor, as well as the boredom endured as the understudy wiles away hours in the dressing room. But some of the best moments are the ones where the protagonist contemplates ways to convince the director to give her one – just one – performance. The varying tactics are moments of comic precision from van Litsenborgh, who employs grandiose expressiveness and physical frustration, all the more admirable for the absence of an actor at the receiving end of her pleas.
Understudy Blues has its fair share of theatre in-jokes and as such tends towards the niche: a sound knowledge of film and theatre is often required to keep up. But with her deft handling of the humour and the music Candice van Litsenborgh keeps the audience in the palm of her hand, while the other one holds up a candle for the underdog.
Understudy Blues runs from 21 to 31 May at the Galloway Theatre, V&A Waterfront. (www.facebook.com/WaterfrontTheatreSchool)