Writer: Ronald Harwood
Director: Sean Foley
Reviewer: Steve Turner
First performed in 1980 and memorably made into a film in 1983, The Dresser, Ronald Harwood’s study of the relationship between an ageing star and his dresser delivers humour and heartache in equal measure. Set during the German air raids of the Second World War the action takes place in a somewhat shabby provincial theatre, with an equally shabby cast owing to most of the young actors being on military service.
Reece Shearsmith as Norman, the dresser of the title, is a bundle of perpetual cheeriness and caustic put-downs. Most of his time is spent cajoling Ken Stott’s ‘Sir’ into dragging himself onto the stage and through another performance of King Lear – the 227th of his long career. Stott as ‘Sir’ is the antithesis of Norman, clearly suffering from exhaustion he spends most of the play in the depths of misery and self-despair, only briefly rising from this when complemented on his acting skills.
Both Shearsmith and Stott deliver outstanding performances, in particular, Stott’s battle with his inner demons being particularly well observed, at times hard to watch yet just as hard to take your eyes off. There are times during the first act when ‘Sir’ is sitting at his make-up mirror, weeping uncontrollably while Norman busies himself around him and although it is Norman doing all the talking, there is something almost magnetic about ‘Sir’ that draws the audience’s attention.
Herein lies the skill in Shearsmith’s performance, seemingly subservient when dealing with ‘Sir’ he is clearly able to persuade him to continue the evening’s performance perhaps dreading the day when his master retires. After all, he has dedicated his recent life to serving ‘Sir’, as he is wont to remind everyone, where will he be if there is no ‘Sir’?
Harriet Thorpe as ‘Her Ladyship’, long suffering partner of ‘Sir’ lends admirable support to the two main characters, her dejection at her current reduced circumstances clearly weighing heavily on her mind. She longs for the days when she can stop all this travelling round the country in cold trains to even colder theatres but appears unable to give up while ‘Sir’ continues.
The humour continues as the beginning of Act Two, initially set backstage as the evening’s performance of King Lear takes place in the background. Here too though, in between the laughs there are some elements of sadness hinting at what is to come.
Despite clearly suffering ‘Sir’ carries on through the performance as he feels he is driven, not by himself, but by the gift he has been given which he feels he must share. When asked about taking a rest he simply refuses stating that it’s easier to carry on climbing than to just hang on.
Sean Foley’s direction and the enthralling performances from Shearsmith and Stott come together to create a memorable version of Harwood’s play which should not be missed.
Runs until 24September 2016 | Image: Hugo Glendinning