Writer: Ronald Harwood
Director: Sean Foley
Reviewer: Bill Avenell
There is always a slightly guilty pleasure felt in laughing at a play which is based on a harrowing subject, but as well as being a first-rate production of a well-written play, The Dresser at Chichester is extremely amusing, partly because of Ronald Harwood’s tight script and partly because the players, and in particular Reece Shearsmith as the eponymous Norman, have their timing to perfection.
This tale of the decline of the classic actor-manager character, Sir, captured superbly by Ken Stott, takes place in wartime with its attendant soundtrack of bombing and air raid sirens. In the small provincial theatre, the company is preparing to put on yet another performance of King Lear and Harwood cleverly uses Shakespeare’s plot to bring out the tensions and stresses which Sir and his cast are going through, from wartime privations to professional and social relationships. They all love him and, in reality, he gives them nothing in return.
Special mention should be made of Music and Sound Designers Max and Ben Ringham who not only give us the stress inducing air raids but a topical soundtrack. That introduction to the second act in which the audience stays quiet as mice listening intently to catch the words of ‘where does poor pa go in the blackout’ provides an inspired moment. The lighting from James Farncombe is also first rate, particularly its depiction of on stage and backstage, and Michael Tayor’s revolving set with the actors climbing on and off is another clever aid which assists Director Sean Foley in his task of keeping the action flowing synchronously from the beginning.
But pride of place must go to Shearsmith. On stage for the vast majority of the piece, he gives a wonderful performance as the camp, devoted supporter of his employer. His mastery of timing and his ability to alter the mood imperceptibly through the play is well worth seeing on its own. But he is not on his own and Stott too plays a major part as the dominant alpha male of the play, supposedly based on Donald Wolfitt. He too shows a mastery of his craft in moving swiftly between a state of abject despair and one of tyrannical domination over both his company and his audience. The rests of the cast is inevitably dwarfed by the two main players but there is no weak link and Harriet Thorpe as Her Ladyship creates a strong character as Sir’s leading lady and lover, herself facing the inevitable decline of her powers in all areas.
So, a really good performance of a really good play which is worth seeing if only to witness Oxenby, played by Adam Jackson-Smith, on the thunder machine.
Runs until 4 February 2017 | Image: Hugo Glendinning