Expectation in the Theatre can be a dangerous thing: The Dresser, Sir Ronald Harwood’s stage masterpiece is often cited as one of Theatre’s great works and while Sean Foley’s direction is accomplished, there are just a few moments when The Dresser, like “Sir” himself, shows its age.
Fortunately, in the expert hands of Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith, moments of lethargy pass swiftly and any flaws in this fine production are easily eclipsed by stellar comedy performances – and it’s Shearsmith who steals almost every scene.
“Sir” (Ken Stott) is actor/manager of a touring theatre company, about to give his 227th performance as King Lear to the provinces. Early scenes take place in Sir’s dressing room – cleverly designed to show the rigging, ropes and gantry of a working theatre behind.
As the house lights flicker and bombs reign down, Norman, dresser to “Sir”, enters. He is soon joined by Her Ladyship (Harriet Thorpe) who arrives like the HMS Victory in full-sail. Despite Her Ladyship’s grave concerns about Sir’s frail mental and physical state, Norman is adamant that the show WILL go on – despite Sir’s current absence and fragile state of mind.
Harwood’s characters inhabit a world “where theatres are bombed as soon as you book them” and where casting plays is a perpetual challenge. Many of The Dresser’s comic highlights are derived from this predicament – such as Lear having to carry an increasingly hefty Cordelia on stage night after night and a male cast largely recruited from “old men, cripples and nancy boys”.
All Her Ladyship wants is to stop touring and enjoy a quiet life. “Who cares whether he acts or not?” she quips and Norman’s spontaneous retort “There’s bound to be someone” betrays the truth that Sir’s better days are behind him.
When a dishevelled Sir finally arrives, looking like a tramp in a pin-stripe suit, it falls to Norman to persuade Her Ladyship and Stage Manager Madge (a gloriously understated Selina Cadell) that he will be fit to perform.
The ensuing scenes between Norman and Sir are as touching as they are comical. The theatrical wit and cajoling flattery of Shearsmith’s dresser is at perfect counterpoint to Stott’s crumbling star. Norman reminds Sir of how to apply his makeup like a parent hurrying a child to get ready for school and the moment when Sir first begins to apply the wrong makeup is utter joy.
The strength of Harwood’s script lies in it’s ability to navigate through witty one-liners to the open waters of the human condition. When Sir says “Inside I am filled with stone”, it would be easy to dismiss his character as self-indulgent, but through his histrionics, truth gradually seeps: when he says of his own father “he preferred people to cower” we understand why this man is so damaged. Only when absolutely required does Norman resort to using the two words guaranteed to rouse Sir’s spirit: “Full house” – and Stott’s delivery of “Really? A full house?” – reveals an ego still very much intact.
One of the unseen stars of the night is set designer, Michael Taylor who perfectly captures the drab austerity of wartime Britain whilst preserving the magical inner-workings of those wonderful old regional theatres – at least those that hadn’t been bombed. In Act Two, the set revolves entirely, revealing the wings where the company of King Lear is gathered. With bombs still falling, Lear has suffered yet another crisis of confidence and is refusing to go on – leading to moments of farce which rival Noises Off for backstage comedy.
While Act Two is peppered with more wonderful put-downs such as Sir commenting on critics “How can you hate the crippled and the mentally deficient?” it is the bleaker of the two halves. Sir’s molestation of Irene, a young girl in the company, highlights some under-development of the play’s female characters. Norman’s subsequent threat to Irene to keep away from Sir reveals one of The Dresser’s darkest moments and whilst it allows Shearsmith a free hand to show his tremendous range as an actor, I felt it missed the opportunity to offer any consequence to Sir’s behaviour – in light of the furore over one Donald Trump’s recent comments, it made me feel a little uncomfortable – but then perhaps that was the point?
A feminist play this most definitely is not, but whilst The Dresser leaves its female cast underutilised, it does allow two male actors at the height of their powers free reign to portray one of the great stage marriages – a kind of male Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?
The great strength of The Dresser lies in it’s deep understanding of the world of Theatre and the fragility and ego of those who inhabit it. Often this is shown through a single line such as Sir explaining that the stage lighting is solely to make Lear stand out, telling his Fool “You must find what light you can”.
The show’s final scene seemed to me, the only part of the show still requiring work. Whether this is in the writing, directing or acting it’s hard to say, but the final moments of the play felt forced, as if the audience, like The Dresser himself, was having to work just a little too hard. But regardless of any flaws, this is a wonderful piece of theatre everyone should see. To quote Sir himself, “The most wonderful thing in life is to be remembered” and The Dresser is just that: A piece of theatre I will remember for a very long time to come.
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