I must confess, I have only ever seen a televised version Ronald Harwoods ‘The Dresser’, I didn’t find it particularly inspiring and actually found myself a little bored. So I didn’t hold out much hope as I walked towards The Duke of York’s Theatre for the opening night of this production, directed by Sean Foley.
I took my seat, wishing I could be anywhere else, but within sixty seconds of the curtain going up my mood had changed, after ten minutes I was hooked and by the interval I didn’t want the show to end.
The Dresser is set during World War 2, and follows an evening in the company of a third-rate Shakespeare repertory company, attempting to stage King Lear. This is proving difficult; all the “good actors” have gone to fight in the war, the lead is mid-breakdown and an air raid has just begun.
‘Sir’ is the actor-manager; and as far as everyone around him is concerned, is the greatest star to have ever trodden the stage. No-one is more in awe of the great man than his long term dresser ‘Norman’. In reality ‘Sir’ is nothing more than a ham actor, a man who treats his wife badly, chases younger girls and keeps on going in the mistaken hope of getting a knighthood.
It is the relationship between ‘Sir’ and ‘Norman’ that is the focus of the play and it was the opening scene with Reece Shearsmith that grabbed my attention in those first few minutes. Shearsmiths performance as ‘Norman’ is astounding. He begins the play with genuine concern for his master, attending to his every whim and cajoling him to go on and perform.
His effeminate portrayal of the character brings plenty of laughs and as the play continues Shearsmith steers the character well. Eventually ‘Norman’ begins to lose his composure, partly due to alcohol, partly because he realises that ‘Sir’ has never really cared for him. His tie loosens and his hair curl slips, this is where we see ‘Norman’ falling apart.
Ken Stott plays ‘Sir’, and does so with a fantastic confidence. The character slips in and out of lucid thought and Stott seems to flick a switch that takes us back and forth with incredible ease.
Selina Cadell is excellent as ‘Madge’, while Harriet Thorpe playing the long-suffering ‘Her Ladyship’ brings both humour and compassion to the role. The staging is beautiful as a rotating set takes us from the dressing room, to the theatre wings and right on to the ‘stage’.
Overall ‘The Dresser’ is a beautiful play that explores the relationship between master and servant, you cannot help but feel for all of the characters for one reason or another. In places it is incredibly funny, but like the best of Shakespeare, the laughter hides the tragedy. Most of all ‘The Dresser’ proves that a live theatre production can bring so much more than a televised production ever could.