Don’t Rain On Their Parade – Understudies, Swings and Covers are the lifeblood of Theatre.

Broadway doesn’t do it. Usually, the West End doesn’t do it either.

So why on Earth did the Menier Chocolate Factory take the extraordinary step of permitting those who had booked, not apparently for Funny Girl, but “to see Sheridan Smith” the chance to exchange their tickets for the final performances of Funny Girl for some future performance when the production transfers to the Savoy Theatre?

This was their statement as reported:

Our priority at this time is to Sheridan and her family. Sheridan’s primary concern is quite rightly her father’s wellbeing, and we support her wholeheartedly. We would never ask nor expect an artist to perform in this situation, and ask that you respect her and her family’s privacy at this time. She will not be performing in Funny Girl this evening, and we will take each day as it comes. Tonight’s performance of Funny Girl will go ahead with her understudy Natasha J Barnes.

The run of Funny Girl at the Menier Chocolate Factory has been a tremendous success, and we look forward to welcoming audiences to the transfer at the Savoy from April. For those patrons who have tickets to any affected performances at the Menier and choose not to see the show, the producers are in agreement with Sheridan, and would like to confirm her offer of tickets to see her in Funny Girl at the Savoy. Tickets will be subject to availability. Patrons should contact the Menier to make arrangements

Choose not to see the show?

When John Simm was indisposed during the run of The Homecoming no one was offered an exchange. When Kim Cattrall was indisposed for the entire season of Linda, no one was offered an exchange. It was the same when Michelle Dockery left the advertised cast of Les Liaisons Dangereuses at the Donmar Warehouse. When Matthew Broderick was indisposed during the Broadway run of The Producers, no one was offered an exchange.  When Betty Buckley was indisposed during the run of Sunset Boulevard at the Adelphi Theatre, no one was offered an exchange. When Jenna Russell was indisposed during the run of Merrily We Roll Along at the very same Menier Chocolate Factory venue, no one was offered an exchange. And so it goes on.

And why should they be offered an exchange?

All tickets to theatrical performances involve an element of chance, especially in long running shows. Actors are humans – they get injured, fall sick, need rest, and have families. They are entitled to the same sort of latitude any employee should be.

Yes, sure, “Let’s go on with the show” is the great motto, the theatrical anthem. But everyone understands the unspoken qualification: unless it’s a bad idea for the show. A performer who “struggles on” when they are unwell or unable does not do the theatre, the audience, their fellow cast members or themselves any favours. Managements who insist performers perform when they feel unable to perform do not do the theatre, the audience, their cast or themselves any favours.

It is just that simple.

Tickets are sold on the basis they are not refundable and not exchangeable. Tickets to Funny Girl are no exception.

As is normal, they come with the following printed terms and conditions:

1. Tickets cannot be refunded unless a performance is cancelled or abandoned when less than half the performance has taken place…

5. The Theatre reserves the right to make changes to the advertised performance owing to any unforeseen or unavoidable cause.

There was, then, no basis, legal or moral, for anyone who harangued the box office staff that “the star” was off and they wanted to see “the star” to be indulged. They should have been told to read the back of their tickets. Whatever a distraught Smith may have promised her followers on Twitter.

There is a wider issue here – and an important one. People who book to see a show should see the best possible version of that show on the day they booked. That is the contract, the understanding, the imperative. If people want to see a particular person, they should stand outside stage door. If they want to see a show, they should buy the ticket.

Managements of productions are entrusted with the show they are producing. They are expected to cast, nurture and support their company, to ensure they perform to their best ability, and that the show can always be seen to its best advantage. They simply do not do that if they let an audience member know that the absence of one person from the company has the same effect as an earthquake levelling the theatre.

It is especially nonsensical when the company has cast an actor for the specific purpose of covering or understudying the role played by the missing person. What kind of message does it send to that actor? To be told that their contribution is the same as having the theatre levelled by an earthquake? Because, however you dress it up, that is the message – you are on so we are essentially giving full refunds to people and letting them come back another night you are not on.

Self evidently, that position is absurd.

It is even more absurd when the person the audience don’t want to see is immeasurably better in the role than the absent person.

And that, as frankly is often the case with covers and understudies, was the case with Funny Girl. Natasha J Barnes was, in every way, superior to Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice. She sang it more easily and with greater control, range and vibrancy; she managed the comic shtick, physical and vocal, more effortlessly; and she commanded the stage and seduced the audience with her skill. Quite rightly, she received a standing ovation and rapturous acclaim.

This gives you some idea of Barnes in action: http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=Natasha+J+BARNES+fUNNY+gIRL&view=detail&mid=17A92AC15E6DA7B1078517A92AC15E6DA7B10785&FORM=VIRE

Yet, the Menier Chocolate Factory was not prepared to stand up for her or the rest of the cast. If Smith was not on, the show was not worth seeing – that is what their decision to provide complaining patrons with exchange tickets at the Savoy season meant.

It is both unfathomable and despicable.

What does it say about Barnes’ commitment, dedication and skill that, despite such a kick to the stomach by her Producers, she still went on, gave her all and triumphed? Smith might be a star, but so is Barnes.

Having attended several final performances of musicals at the Menier Chocolate Factory, a venue it is impossible not to admire given its track record, I can attest that the mood on those occasions is usually intoxicating, ebullient, thrilling. For the final performance of Funny Girl, it was flat, nervous, dull. Many seats were empty – never has the back row of the theatre been entirely empty on such an occasion before, not even for the lamentable Paradise Found. Wisely, the hard-working and long suffering theatre staff moved patrons to the centre of the auditorium, so that, for the cast, the audience would look as full as possible – still, there were only two people in that final row.

Economically, what happened makes no sense. If you are going to give people free replacement tickets for the Savoy season why not make those exchange tickets conditional upon attendance at the performance they booked for? Get them at least aware of the possibility of seeing alternate performers. If you are going to entertain exchanges, why would any other course be preferable?

Not that exchanges should be entertained. Live theatre can only work at top professional levels if actors are permitted to be human and have time off when they need it. Skilled performers who have learnt the role should go on and perform it – that is the whole point of having covers, swings and understudies. Remember, it takes skill and guts to learn and perform your own role while mastering one or more other roles which you could be asked to perform at any time. Usually, the “names” only have one thing to do. Their possible replacements have much much more asked of them, usually for far less remuneration.

Unless it is a one person show, no production is lesser than its star. Even then…

Many times in the past, stars have been created by mishaps or unforeseen circumstances. Elaine Page owes much to Judi Dench’s injury prior to the original opening of Cats. Part of the beauty and wonder of theatre is that you never know exactly what might happen or who you will see. You might be relieved to discover that the person you wanted to see was on, but if they are not that does not mean you are going to see a poorer performance of the show you have paid to see. You might see a better performance. You never know.

Shame on you Menier Chocolate Factory. You have diminished your own reputation and sent a terrible message to your Funny Girl company. Not to mention sown a seed that may see patrons expecting and clamouring for exchanges any time it suits them. What will you do in the Savoy season if Smith can’t perform on a given night?

Understudies, swings and covers should be celebrated, appreciated and applauded. Without them, live theatre is finished.

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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.