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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Dresser
Duke Of York's Theatre  Autumn 2016

Inspired by (though, he insists, not a documentary account of) his early experiences as backstage assistant to the touring Shakespearean actor Donald Wolfit, Ronald Harwood's 1980 play is a warm celebration of theatre people who do what they do out of love and the inability to imagine doing anything else. 

Sean Foley's new production captures the warts-and-all affection that colours the whole play, while adding enough new touches to intrigue even those familiar with it. 

We are backstage in a provincial theatre during bombing raids in 1941 as the actor-manager identified only as “Sir” and his ragtag company bring culture to the masses with a performance of King Lear. 

On this particular day Sir has had some sort of breakdown and it is uncertain he'll be able to go on. But his loyal dresser Norman, evidently experienced with such occasions, manages to coax, wheedle, bully and manipulate Sir onto the stage and through the show. 

Along the way there are hiccups and set pieces that have become famous – everyone backstage manning the sound effects machines to give Sir the Storm Scene he wants, Sir unable to work up enough interest to seduce an assertively willing starlet, and the usually unflappable Norman displaying unexpected fangs whenever he feels his little fiefdom being invaded. 

The play's ongoing popularity – there have been several revivals and two films since 1980 – can be attributed to its undemanding mix of mild comedy and mild pathos, and its utility as a vehicle for the two central characters. And here is where director Sean Foley and his stars explore some new ground. 

Sir has traditionally been played as a larger-than-life self-dramatising ham, undoubtedly talented and dedicated, but equally deluded and ridiculous, while the fussy effeminacy written into Norman has invited actors in that role to camp him up to their heart's content. 

But Ken Stott's great talent as an actor is to being a solid earth-bound reality to his characters, and those who have seen The Dresser before may be startled at first to see a Sir who seems more like a prosperous small businessman than an over-the-top never-really-offstage performer. 

Yet Stott's characterisation grows on you, making Sir less of a cartoon and more a real human being, fighting age and exhaustion out of a real sense of dedication and obligation. 

And Reece Shearsmith's Norman, while as camp and comic as you could wish, lets us glimpse both real pain, in his many anecdotes attributed to an unnamed friend, and real steel, as when we spot that his concern for Sir is not totally untainted by concern for his own job and future. 

There is nice comic support from Harriet Thorpe, playing Sir's consort as an actress who has played dowager duchesses so often that bits of the characters carry into her offstage personality, and sweet hints of pathos and courage from Selina Cadell as the unappreciated stage manager who has been secretly in love with Sir for decades and knows that everyone knows her secret. 

The Dresser is not a great play, but it offers an evening of pleasant entertainment, both serious and comic. This production finds all its virtues and adds some attractive new ones.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Dresser  - Duke of York's Theatre 2016  

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