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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Dresser
Duke of York's Theatre     Spring 2005

Ronald Harwood's 1980 drama is a peep behind the curtain at a theatrical world that exists only in the memories of the oldest among us - the small-scale touring repertory companies of the 1940s, led by old-school actor-managers in the Donald Wolfit mould, and driven by some compulsion to go on and on, bringing Shakespeare to every corner of Britain.

Harwood's central character is dresser to one such company leader, the backstage assistant who doubles, as needed, as counsellor, acolyte, nanny, bully, doorkeeper, tea boy and sound effects man.

We watch him at work in all these roles on the night of wartime bombing that his ageing star chooses to have a nervous breakdown from exhaustion, as the dogsbody guides and pushes his boss through one more performance as King Lear.

Though there are others in the cast, the play is essentially a vehicle for the dresser and the actor, played here by Nicholas Lyndhurst (best known as a light comic actor in a string of TV sitcoms) and Julian Glover (longtime RSC stalwart).

And the pleasure comes from the way they work together, creating characters who both flirt with the edges of caricature while still winning our belief, sympathy and admiration.

Lyndhurst might be the bigger surprise to those who know him only from TV, as his dresser is a subtly layered characterisation, all camp fluttering on the surface, but with both a hard edge that he will display as needed and hints of an even deeper sadness that slip out in self-revealing anecdotes that tend to begin 'I had a friend who...'

Whenever you think you have the character pegged, Lyndhurst lets you glimpse another new facet to him, as the portrait becomes ever more rich and complex.

Julian Glover plays the actor a little less flamboyantly than you might have seen the role done if you know the play, choosing to emphasise the realistic over the near-caricature.

He shows us both the foolishness and the surprising nobility of a man who is clearly a second-rate artist but is as driven as any star by the demands of his art.

Alongside the humour of his exalted self-image and the way he can be roused instantly from the near-catatonia of exhaustion by word that there's a full house out front, Glover also shows us the man who hates the need to perform that drives him and yet can be raised to a real glory by the fleeting moments of great performance.

In the supporting cast, there mainly to give a sense of the backstage chaos, Annabel Leventon as the boss's long-suffering wife and co-star, and Liza Sadovy as the faithful and lovestruck stage manager, flesh out their roles more than the script might suggest.

Peter Hall, whose occasionally half-hearted commercial work I have had occasion to bemoan, is very much back in form, guiding his cast to this warm and textured evocation of a lost world.

To be frank, there isn't much of a play here, and if you want even a middling level of drama or comment on the human condition, you are likely to find The Dresser thin and trivial.

But as a love letter to the theatre and to all who love the theatre, and as a vehicle for a sensitive director and two attractive performers, it makes for a thoroughly satisfying evening.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Dresser - Duke Of York's Theatre 2005

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