Last Updated on 17th October 2016
Duke of York’s Theatre
13th October 2016
The Dresser has undergone a revival of late, arriving in the West End less than a year after Richard Eyre’s critically acclaimed adaptation hit our TV screens. It is a tough act to follow; the pairing of Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Anthony Hopkins seeking to define their roles for generations. Any fears of comparisons should, however, be allayed. Sean Foley’s new production is quite wonderful, with sublime performances from both Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith, and a truly excellent supporting cast.
Set (mainly) backstage during a provincial production of King Lear, in the midst of the Second World War, The Dresser explores the relationship between the eponymous Norman (Reece Shearsmith) and ‘Sir’ (Ken Stott), the actor-manager of the company. Both men are completely dependent on one another – Norman lives for the gratification of preparing ‘Sir’ for his performances, and their intimate routine, whilst Sir’s failing memory requires Norman to remind him of his lines, and sometimes the play he is to perform. ‘Her Ladyship’ (Harriet Thorpe), Sir’s partner and the production’s Cordelia, is adamant that Sir gives up the profession for the sake of his health, but it is his lifeblood. In turn, Norman is single-mindedly devoted to getting Sir on the stage, and we fear for something calamitous.
For some, the thought of seeing an actor prepare for a performance may strike a clandestine chord, as if they do not exist for us before entering the stage. This notion is wholeheartedly deconstructed in The Dresser, as we witness every aspect of Sir’s uneasy and rather fraught transformation. He arrives on stage in dipsomaniacal garb, ruddy-faced and wild-haired, and sobs for minutes on end. He carries “the world on [his] head”, he says, and he rails at Norman, who then takes a secret drink. He unashamedly flirts with young actress Irene (Phoebe Sparrow), he makes himself up for the wrong play. It is all desperately sad, but also very poignant, and often tremendously funny.
Stott is quite magnificent; preposterously self-absorbed, yet dignified, and capable of both kindness and muddled wisdom. His tenderness with Her Ladyship speaks of years of affection, in spite of his self-absorption. Stott’s chemistry with the excellent Harriet Thorpe beautifully illustrates the dichotomy Sir Ronald Harwood speaks of in the programme notes, that actor-managers publically proclaim pride in their individuality, whilst privately acknowledging the debt they owe to those that support them. The tragedy is that Sir loves himself, and his art, above all else, and pursues perfection even as his faculties begin to fail him.
Norman is no less a tragic figure than ‘Sir’. He is a great talker who cannot bear to speak candidly about himself, an empathetic figure who takes out his frustrations on Sir’s fellow actors. Sean Foley describes Norman as the Fool to Sir’s Lear, the only one allowed to “cajole him, and ready him for that night’s performance”. Yet Sir’s behaviour towards Norman – treating him as a confidant, yet unashamedly a dogsbody – begins to take its toll. Unlike the Fool, Norman does not literally disappear. Instead, he withdraws and drinks.
Shearsmith, a master of likeable, yet uncomfortable performances, conveys Norman’s energy and fastidiousness with characteristic aplomb. It is also a very thoughtful and moving study of a man sinking under the weight of repression and unfulfillment. Shearsmith expertly unpicks the seams of a life lived vicariously. As the play progresses, we witness Norman’s gradual, heartbreaking realisation that Sir thinks far less of him than he thought. Sir’s idiosyncratic love for Her Ladyship, his attentions towards Irene, and even the longevity of his friendship with world-weary stage-manager Madge (Selina Cadell), seemingly trump his own contribution. The play’s title is truly fascinating, directing focus on a man who fears that he is barely seen at all.
The comedy and tragedy are expertly facilitated by The Dresser’s strong supporting cast, from Selina Cadell’s pragmatic and cynical Madge to Phoebe Sparrow’s naively spirited Irene. In turn, Adam Jackson-Smith is terrific as the embittered and pompous actor Oxenby, whilst Simon Rouse’s performance as his foil, Geoffrey Thornton, is an absolute joy. As well as being a hilariously uncertain Fool, his speech about his lot as an actor, and his newfound desire for better parts is supremely moving. The biggest plaudit should, however, go to Harriet Thorpe, whose Her Ladyship seems perpetually on the verge of collapse, yet possessed of enormous inner strength. It is a rich and finely tuned performance, which conveys with a look or a sigh the years of frustration and exhaustion, whilst demonstrating how her sensitivity and courage have not quite slipped away.
Sean Foley’s production of The Dresser is simply extraordinary. Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith are outstanding as ‘Sir’ and Norman, whilst the supporting cast and Harriet Thorpe’s ‘Her Ladyship’ in particular are truly excellent. It is a thought-provoking, funny and poignant piece, which not only does full justice to Sir Ronald Harwood’s wonderful script, but the acclaimed productions that have preceded it.