'There wasn't time to feel anything!': understudy Ryan Pidgen's big break

Every understudy awaits their big break. Yet few replace a household name on the opening night of a blockbuster show with critics watching in the audience. But when Matt Lucas received last-minute medical advice to rest his voice, his stand-in Ryan Pidgen found himself vaulted to the leading role in Chichester Festival theatre’s big summer musical Me and My Girl on Monday night.

If some audience members initially groaned at the announcement that the Little Britain star wouldn’t be taking to the stage, the resulting standing ovation and rave write-ups sealed a triumphant night for Pidgen, who usually plays two minor characters in the show and found out he’d be taking over only a couple of hours before the curtain went up.

“It was all a bit of a blur,” says the 33-year-old actor, who comes from Cornwall and graduated from the musical theatre college SLP in Leeds 10 years ago. “We came in at about 2pm for a speed-run of the show after having Sunday off. Matt’s voice was hurting him, but he was ploughing through. Then at about 4.30pm they sent for the doctor.” Lucas was told to rest his voice for a couple of days and Pidgen suddenly got “hauled to the side of the stage and asked how I’d feel about going on”. And how did he feel exactly? “There wasn’t much time to feel anything,” he laughs. “There was no way I was not going to do it!”

‘It was all a bit of a blur’ … Ryan Pidgen

Cast and crew mobilised swiftly to accommodate the last-minute change. While Pidgen’s costumes were being prepared backstage, he ran through his lines as the musical’s hero, Cockney barrow boy Bill Snibson, who discovers he is the heir to an earldom. The musical, which first ran in the 1930s and features the show-stopper The Lambeth Walk, is being presented in Chichester in a version that Stephen Fry co-created in the 1980s.

“Everyone was working hard but no one was panicking – which was great, because then I wasn’t panicking,” says Pidgen, who had been due to start learning Lucas’s part the day after press night but had been watching Lucas through the preview performances and during rehearsals.

Not only did Pidgen have to take on the main part but he also had to keep some of his regular ensemble duties in the production before making his entrance as Snibson. Did he manage to remember all his lines? “I’m not going to lie – there were times when my mouth was moving and I wasn’t sure what was coming out.” He praises his co-stars including Alex Young, who “was dragging me round that stage” and his director, Daniel Evans, with whom he worked at Sheffield Theatres on the musical Show Boat, which transferred to the West End. Last year, Pidgen performed in The Wind in the Willows at the London Palladium.

Lucas sent a message of encouragement to the dressing room for Pidgen before he went on. In a tweet, the star said he had been “having the time of my life” in the show but: “I’ve lost my voice. The doc stuck a camera up my nose and down my throat this afternoon and said I mustn’t speak for the next 48 hours … In the meantime, the brilliant Ryan Pidgen will be playing Bill and with a bit of luck I’m really hoping to be back at work on Wednesday evening.”

While it’s not uncommon for understudies to step into the spotlight during the run of a show, the stakes are particularly high when you replace a huge star. In 2008, Alexandra Jay triumphed as a last-minute Eliza Doolittle, replacing Martine McCutcheon, in My Fair Lady. In 2016, Natasha J Barnes won acclaim when she filled in for Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl and in the same year Ria Jones bowled over a crowd who initially booed when she took over from Glenn Close, who couldn’t perform in Sunset Boulevard due to illness. Replacing a megastar on press night, when the critics attend, is particularly tough, but in 2008 Edward Bennett was praised for his performance when he replaced an injured David Tennant as Hamlet in the West End.

Pidgen, who celebrated by having a couple of glasses of wine and going straight to bed, is no stranger to stepping up at the last minute. “I’ve just been doing the UK tour of Fat Friends The Musical,” he says. “I was understudying Freddie Flintoff in that one but that was a different kettle of fish. In the whole six months I only went on for him once.”

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