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Review: Waiting for Waiting for Godot (St James Theatre)

Simon Day and James Marlowe star in a modern-day riff on Beckett's masterpiece

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Simon Day and James Marlowe
© Andy Tyler

Understudies, like stage managers, are some of the most unsung heroes in the business. Most of the time their job is to turn up, night after night, just in case. The rare days they do get to go onstage, they barely get any notice before having to step up to tread the boards. They're expected to know their lines and blocking perfectly, regardless of the fact that it might be the first time they've done the part in weeks. With all that lonely backstage time, it must be, psychologically, pretty tough. Dave Hanson's comedy throws a bit of light on a dressing room that's home to two hapless, hopeless understudies, slowly beginning to unravel.

You can probably guess the play they are understudying, and Hanson tries, clunkily, to channel it. Like Vladimir and Estragon, Ester and Val are waiting. Waiting for something to happen – illness? accident? – they aren't too sure. They are cooped up in a tiny dressing room with only each other and some musty costumes for company. It's dead time; time they while away by repeating the same stories to each other. At one point Simon Day's veteran actor Ester tries to teach the young Val (James Marlowe) a thing or two about acting, at another point they decide to curse ("Macbeth!") the show.

Paralleling the work of an understudy with the surreal, existential situation Beckett creates in Waiting for Godot is a nice idea. There are a few things - the loneliness, the paranoia, how you never know quite what's round the corner - which ring true in both the original and this new play. The plain strangeness of that job and showbusiness in general is a nice fit for Beckett's wry, oddball wit. But Hanson's comedy repeatedly misses the mark. He's attempting Beckett and failing; trying a lighter, funnier, approach, which just doesn't work. The subtlety of suggestion and the readable pauses are absent.

The performances don't help. Day is awkward as Val, regularly overplaying his part in an attempt to get laughs, which generally fall flat. Marlowe is much better, but the two of them don't make a convincing double act. Their relationship feels laboured. The rhythm changes somewhat when the assistant stage manager Laura (Laura Kirman) turns up, but she's more an opportunity to shake up the form of two people onstage, than a viable, interesting character in her own right.

Mark Bell, the man behind The Play That Goes Wrong and the other very successful Mischief Theatre comedies, directs and - surprisingly given that back catalogue - he has the pace all wrong: it's glacial. There are little glimpses of set malfunction – echoes of those previous shows. They are tantalising moments which show what could have been but generally the set is disappointingly static. You're left waiting for more things to fall off walls and more props to break. But you'll end up waiting, and waiting, and waiting.

Waiting for Waiting for Godot runs at the St James Theatre until 24 September.