The Dresser, by Ronald Harwood
Chichester Festival Theatre
The winter Festival Theatre season continues triumphantly with an unmissable production of The Dresser. This enduring play by Ronald Harwood has stood the test of time since its first performance in 1980. This is the story of a struggling theatre company staging rep performances of Shakespeare in bomb-blasted England in World War Two, and features an aging actor manager, simply known as ‘Sir’, and his dresser Norman.
Sir is clearly losing his mind and his health, and the big question in the first act is whether he will make it on stage to perform King Lear. The stage manager Madge and her Ladyship (Sir’s partner) want to cancel the performance, but wonders are performed by the waspish and witty Norman who uses all his cunning and powers of persuasion to get Sir dressed and somehow ready to perform. Sir spends his time in his dressing room caught between torrents of self-pitying tears and bursts of bravado. He has huge difficulty remembering which play he is supposed to perform, and his first lines in Lear.
The second act initially moves the action fro the dressing room front of stage. Will Sir make an entrance or remember his lines? Afterwards there is a dramatic turn offstage. While you must no expect everything to turn out happy every after, you are certain to enjoy this marvellous play.
In his programme notes Ronald Harwood, who once worked as a dresser, to Sir Donald Wolfit, admits that his theatrical experiences have helped him to give a sense of reality and truth to his play. But he says that neither Sir nor Norman were modeled on Wolfit or himself, but on a number of people. According to Harwood says the actor-manager role lasted more than 200 years from the early 18th century. Although often ridiculed today, they “created a magnificent tradition which is the foundation of our present-day theatrical inheritance”.
Over the years The Dresser has enjoyed scintillating performances on stage and on screen, but there can have been few better than Reece Shearsmith as the eponymous dresser and Ken Stott as Sir. They wrung every ounce of comedy, pathos, melodrama, sorrow and empathy from their parts.
Stott plays Sir with just the right balance of ham, hypocrisy and honesty to create a mixture of affection and repulsion. Shearsmith is irresistible as Norman, putting his body and soul into his put-upon gay character. These are towering performances. There is strong support from the rest of the cast – notably Selina Cadell as Madge and Harriet Thorpe as Her Ladyship.
Director Sean Foley has ensured that every comic moment is exploited and the subtle rhythms of the play are realised.
The Dresser is on until Saturday, February 4 at the end of a tour which has included Brighton Richmond, Cheltenham and the Duke of York’s in London. Highly recommended.
By Nick Keith