The Dresser

The Dresser (reviewed at Richmond Theatre, now playing at Duke of York’s, London, until January 14th, 2017)

One of the great plays of the 20th Century – and one of the finest works about theatrical life you’re likely to find – has been dusted down and polished beautifully for a new production overflowing with promise before the curtain even rises.

Writer Ronald Harwood always says how puzzled he is by the longevity and popularity of The Dresser but a strong cast, excellent production values, and a director who never fails to deliver on quality show off all of its strengths.

Harwood based the piece on his own experiences as Donald Wolfit’s dresser, and this worthy West End-bound revival captures every moment of its wit, humour, and tragedy perfectly. It’s an emotional drama with a heart and the all-important relationships are played out with effective depth and poignancy.

As the sound of wartime bombing is echoed by storm machine and timpani providing effects for Act Three of King Lear you feel the noise is blasting away the past, from failing careers and lost hopes of love to the grand old days of regional touring theatre and actor managers building up loyal companies.

Ken Stott’s overpowering actor manager, the self-styled “Sir,” is touring Shakespeare with an ageing repertory company, wanting his production of King Lear to carry on in spite of declining health and a loosening grip on sanity matched only by the tragic hero.  Stott’s terrific performance, teetering between the strong successful actor who lives for his art, and the weakness of his diminishing faculties when offstage, is haunting.

Reece Shearsmith’s Norman, the faithful dresser and confidant, captures the humour of the role and the disappointment of not quite making it as an actor or a true soulmate for Sir, as well as discovering some of the grotesqueness of the character. While always loveable there is also a bitterness that is deep-rooted and sometimes shocking.  The pairing of these two solid performers makes for a fascinating character study exploring a life in theatre that is but a dim memory.

There are standout performances too from Selina Cadell as the businesslike stage manager Madge who, perhaps like Norman, has had to hide an unrequited love for Sir; Harriet Thorpe as a frayed Her Ladyship, desperate to find real life away from the theatre; and Simon Rouse, surely good enough to be understudying the role of Sir, but here playing the small role of Thornton, the hard-working and unassuming older actor who has devoted his life to theatre for little reward and ends up playing the Fool.

Sean Foley never lets you down as director, always discovering some extra humour or an extra level of pathos, and here he has brought together a fine cast to give sparkle to an already glittering gem. In his hands you cannot help but feel you are seeing a heartfelt and accurate presentation of what life is like backstage for old pros.

Harwood’s 1980 play is as much a tragedy as the great Shakespeare plays his troupe of players bring to the masses as it explores love, loyalty, and the ephemeral reality of relationships and success. This production is a great revival that ultimately leaves the heart aching and sighing for what was and what might have been in any life.

David Guest

Photo: Hugo Glendinning