Webster’s dictionary defines symbiosis as “the relationship between two different kinds of living things that live together and depend on each other” and David Attenborough has done some fine programmes on symbiotic relationships. However, if you truly want to understand what we mean by symbiosis, then get yourself along to London’s Duke of York’s Theatre and see Ronald Harwood’s play, The Dresser.
In 1942, most of the young male actors had been called up to do their bit for Britain but, back home people still need to be entertained and we follow one day in the life of a Shakespearean touring company run by the tyrannical Sir (Ken Stott) an actor of nearly as much renown as he thinks he has but who is getting worn down by the profession he loves. Luckily though Sir is supported by his faithful partner, Her Ladyship (Harriet Thorpe), devoted and highly efficient Stage Manager Madge (Selina Cadell) and his dresser, Norman (Reece Shearsmith). Somehow, despite himself, Sir manages to pull the company together and whilst the rest of the team probably don’t like him, they are all willing to assist to ensure that the show does go on. Tonight, however, following a bit of a breakdown in the town centre earlier, Sir is having trouble going on tonight. Madge wants to cancel but Norman is determined his man will go out and, for the 227th time deliver his King Lear.
I’m going to hold my hand up and say that, unlike many of the people reviewing this show, I have never seen a version of it before, not have I seen Noises Off so will not be doing any comparisons in my review. I thoroughly enjoyed The Dresser. From the moment I walked into the auditorium and took in Michael Taylor’s wonderful rotating set and started listening to the wartime music being piped in, I thought I was going to like the show, and I did. I know these type of touring companies with tyrannical actor/managers don’t exist too much these days – though I did see a touring production of Twelfth Night a couple of years ago where the cast spent a lot of time in the pub complaining about the actor/manager in much the same way this cast probably would – but Ronald Harwood has written a wonderful piece that, to my mind, is not dated and feels very authentic. My only criticism is that I felt the first act was a little too long and the joke about carrying Cordelia was definitely used once too often. Having said that there were a lot of really funny moments in the script and Sir’s explanation of why he didn’t hate critics “The critics? No, I have nothing but compassion for them. How can I hate the crippled, the mentally deficient, and the dead?,” got a lot of laughs.
Although the programme lists a cast of twelve, The Dresser is pretty much a two-hander most of the time with occasional inserts by other characters. Before moving on to to the two leads, I do want to quickly mention the rest of the cast. From Harriet Thorpe’s steely-eyed, almost regal performance as Her Ladyship to Selina Cadell’s wonderfully observed meticulous, unemotional – but with a burning desire just below the surface – Madge, everyone was simply excellent. I especially want to mention Simon Rouse, who played Geoffrey Thornton, an elderly actor who, if it hadn’t been for the war would probably have retired long ago. Geoffrey never wanted or seemed to expect big roles but, given a chance to play a larger part in king Lear than normal, he seemed to remember why he had become an actor in the first place and ended up wanting more. A really well observed and nuanced piece of acting from Simon.
So, the reality of The Dresser is that it stands and falls on the relationship between Sir and Norman. Luckily, this production really does stand as Ken and Reece dominate the stage and have a truly wonderful relationship full of barbed comments, bitchiness, bullying, mutual respect and, for want of a better word, love. I could imagine the play being performed different ways with Norman and Sir being much nastier but I really think these two got the balance between viscous and funny just right and I would now have trouble imagining anyone other than Reece in the role of Norman. It would be very easy to dislike Sir but somehow, Ken Stott manages to humanise the tyrant and get the audience to, if not like him, then understand some of his motivation for being the way he is.
Sean Foley’s direction was sure-footed and, as already mentioned I loved the set, though there were occasions in the second act where it was a bit distracting seeing the chaps come on at the sides to swing the set round. James Farncombe’s lighting design worked well, particularly the opening – I’ll say no more about that.
Summing up then, The Dresser is a really good play that definitely deserves its revival in the West End. I thoroughly enjoyed it and at the end, I felt that I had a seen a really great performance of a true English classic.
Review by Terry Eastham
A major revival of The Dresser by Academy award winning author Sir Ronald Harwood starring Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith.
Olivier Award winner Ken Stott and BAFTA Award winner Reece Shearsmith come together as lead actor “Sir” and Norman “the dresser” in this eagerly awaited revival of “a wonderfully affectionate and intelligent play about the theatre” The Guardian.
Both hilarious and poignant, The Dresser explores the relationship between two men who are reluctantly and inevitably co-dependent. As World War II rages, backstage in a provincial English theatre, an ageing, once-famous classical actor is troubled. Sir, the last in a dying breed of great English Shakespearean actors, is unwilling to take to the stage to deliver his renowned portrayal of King Lear. It falls to his faithful dresser Norman to rouse another great performance from him, to keep both the show and its star from falling apart.
Renowned as Ronald Harwood’s greatest play, The Dresser has been nominated for Olivier and Tony Awards as well as an Academy Award for the screenplay of the film. With a multi-award winning creative team of Ken Stott (Rebus, God of Carnage), Reece Shearsmith (The League of Gentlemen, Inside Number 9) and Sean Foley (The Ladykillers, Jeeves and Wooster) this promises to be an unmissable production of a theatrical classic.
Duke of York’s Theatre
45 St Martin’s Lane, London, WC2N 4BG
Booking to 14th January 2017