The second of Mark Shenton's new Friday evening series Coq-tales and Conversations at Live at Zedel in Piccadilly (the former Crazy Coqs) featured two of this year’s most famous understudies. Ria Jones made headlines when she replaced an indisposed Glenn Close as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard at the London Coliseum for four performances in April. Meanwhile Natasha J Barnes stepped into the spotlight as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl when Sheridan Smith fell ill. Shenton happened to see one of her early performances in the role and gave her a rave review. Barnes ended up taking over the role full time for two months and since Smith’s return continues to play Fanny Brice on Monday evenings. Both ladies spoke to an animated Shenton about their experiences and of the enormous highs and lows involved.

The situation of the two was actually markedly different. A leading lady of 30 years standing, Jones was employed as an alternate, meaning that she didn't appear in the company unless she was on in the lead role. Having originated the role of Norma Desmond in the first ever workshop of Sunset Boulevard – but being too young at that time to play the role – Jones took on the job as an opportunity to watch and learn from a Hollywood superstar up close. On the other hand, Barnes was cast in  the role of Emma, Fanny’s assistant, in Funny Girl and as understudy to Smith. The rest is theatrical history.

Jones was particularly relaxed in conversation with Shenton and recalled the phone call when she was told that she would be on that evening as Norma Desmond, the reaction of the audience and her journey so far in the role. Barnes revealed that she had worked with Funny Girl director Michael Mayer previously, on a production of American Idiot, and that she had never really expected to go on in the lead role. One thing is for sure – the experience of both ladies has given both their careers a boost. Jones came off stage on her first night as Norma to the offer of playing Dorothy Brock in a major new production of 42nd Street at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris this Christmas, while Barnes has been cast in the title role of Cinderella at the London Palladium.

Although the conversation with Shenton took up most of the hour-long slot of Coq-tales and Conversations, Jones and Barnes did give the audience a glimpse of their vocal talents to piano accompaniment. Funny Girl Barnes reprised her big number from that show, giving an empowered ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’, while Jones gave a master class of her considerable interpretative talents in ‘The Man That Got Away’. While their respective leading roles might have ‘got away’ with the return of their leading ladies, both ladies expressed a desire to recreate their roles in future productions. With a tour of Funny Girl in the works for next year, and the possibility that the ENO’s Sunset Boulevard might resurface elsewhere, in the best showbiz tradition their dreams could well come true.