The Dresser

Posted by Laurence Green

Laurence Green reviews Sean Foley's new production of the 1980 tragicomedy, The Dresser.

Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith, The Dresser

An illuminating insight into backstage theatrical life is provided by Ronald Harwood’s sharp, yet poignant 1980 tragicomedy, The Dresser (Duke of York’s Theatre), revived in a new production, directed by Sean Foley.

As World War II rages, backstage in a provincial English theatre, an ageing, once-famous classical actor is troubled. ‘Sir’ a monstrously self-absorbed ‘ham; actor-manger from a theatrical tradition now several generations past, who cruelly ignores his wife, spurns the trust and devotion of his stage manager and flirts with the younger female company members, is unwilling to take to the stage to deliver his renowned portrayal of King Lear. It is up to his faithful dresser Norman to rouse another great performance from him to keep both the show and the star from falling apart.

This play is less a love letter to the theatre, than a reminder of the grottiness behind the greasepaint – in exploring the relations between two men who are reluctantly and inevitably co-dependent; the piece manages to be affectionate and funny.  However, it takes a while for Sean Foley’s production to fully get in its stride and the work is already familiar from the film version starring Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay, not to mention the many stage productions.

But if it lacks a certain freshness and degree of surprise, it certainly benefits from two excellent lead performances. Ken Stott captured Sir’s blend of physical disintegration and professional survival – first seen sobbing uncontrollably at his dressing-room table his eyes light up at the magic words ‘full house’. He also embodies the durability of the old pro who knows how to use a stentorian voice to outdo thunder sheets and wind machines, not to mention an air raid. Reece Shearsmith, on the other hand, is spot-on as Norman, his loyal dresser, dapper, busy, waspish and seething with love-hate towards the actor, on whom he totally depends. Indeed Shearsmith combines a potent and toxic cocktail of emotions behind Norman’s façade of pragmatic, camp cheerfulness.

Fine support is given by Harriet Thorpe who invests Sir’s tired and frustrated actress wife, Her Ladyship, with a mix of majesty and clear-sightedness, and Sebrina Cadell as Madge, is the epitome of the briskly sensible stage manager.

In all then, an entertaining and indestructibly watchable play that seems undimmed by the passage of time.

The Dresser

Showing at Duke of York’s Theatre until 14 January 2016

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