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Understudies are the biggest stars at this year's West End Live

There were a variety of stand-out moments across the two-day event

Rachel Rawlinson backstage at West End Live
© Pamela Raith

This weekend saw the return of West End Live, the hugely popular showcase of live theatre presented by Westminster City Council and the Society of London Theatre. The event, which takes place each year over two days in Trafalgar Square, included performances from over fifty different shows and groups.

Amidst an array of show-stopping turns, the emerging breakout stars of this year's event were the understudies, standbys and swings of the theatre industry who were featured more prominently than ever before. In the months since theatres have reopened, much has been said to credit the tireless and vital work of these performers, including at Broadway's Tony Awards by host Ariana DeBose and at the West End's own Olivier Awards where a special performance of Stephen Sondheim's "Our Time" featured cover performers from each of the season's nominated shows.

As has become a recent tradition for the event, Saturday commenced with a wakening performance of "The Circle of Life" from Disney's The Lion King, and soloist Tramaine Lamy set the tone for the weekend when she shared in a subsequent interview that she was a swing in the London production and had been with the show for a decade.

Understudies can often expect to be called upon with very little notice and such was the case for Bonnie and Clyde's Lauren Jones who wowed with a stirring rendition of "Dyin Ain't So Bad" shortly after fellow understudy Charlie McCullagh had performed, as well as Rhys Wilkinson, second cover for the role of Romeo at & Juliet who duetted with the show's Olivier Award winning leading lady, Miriam-Teak Lee. Both Lauren and Rhys had only learned a few hours before that they would be singing in front of the amassed crowd in Trafalgar Square, a feat which many have described as both formidable and exhilarating.

A standout performance among many thrilling offerings came from Emily Benjamin. Covering seven different roles in the multi–award-winning new staging of Cabaret including the iconic Sally Bowles, her rendition of the titular song stands squarely alongside those of the two actresses she has understudied as a moment of stunning theatre.

Some of the featured shows made a conscious choice to platform their covers this year such as West End Live mainstay The Phantom of the Opera, who sent a trio of understudy Phantoms, Ashley Stillburn, James Gant, and James Hume for a special performance of "The Music of the Night". Similarly, Come From Away stayed true to their wholesome reputation with a dedication to the eight offstage cast members that complete the show's full company and are each prepared to perform any of five roles each at a moment's notice. This was fittingly followed by an astounding performance of "Me and the Sky" from standby Jennifer Tierney.

Sunday's roster of shows continued the trend, with Elly Jay, first cover for the role of Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman, belting up a storm (though the weather remained uninterruptedly sunny) with "I Can't Go Back. So too did WhatsOnStage and Olivier Award-winning new musical Back to the Future'' feature principal understudy Will Haswell in the role of Marty McFly to perform one of the show's most iconic numbers, ‘The Power of Love'.

Fan favourite Six has long been a proponent of its alternates and swings and their West End live performances through the years have proved no exception. A highlight of this year's event was the show's unexpected collaboration with its former Edinburgh Fringe neighbour, The Choir of Man on a choral arrangement of "Heart of Stone". Though less of a surprise when it was repeated on Sunday, the entrance of alternate Jane Seymour, Roxanne Couch, was an exciting revelation and a phenomenal vocal performance. Similarly, super-swing Rachel Rawlinson who had recently been entrusted covering all six roles at last weekend's Hampton Court concert performances, had taken the helm as Catherine of Aragon to perform "No Way" the day before. They were joined across the weekend by more talented cover queens: Paisley Billings, Esme Rothero and Danielle Rose.

If this is to be one of the most public stages for the theatre industry, it is entirely fitting that audiences are reminded of the importance and talent of understudy, standby and swing performers. Where better than West End Live for them to be acknowledged, uplifted, and celebrated with rapturous applause. That the industry has been able to survive is in no small part thanks to these cast members and the debt of gratitude which it owes them is immeasurable.