The life of an actor/ manager has never been so acutely observed than in Ronald Harewood’s acclaimed theatre play, The Dresser.
But in the revival, which opened on Thursday at London’s Duke of York Theatre, it’s less the histrionics of “Sir” that take star billing and more the beautifully judged performance of Reece Shearsmith as Norman, his dresser.
Waspish, subtly bitchy, and ultimately poignant, Shearsmith’s delivers a Norman who has lived his sad, pathetic life in the shadows of greatness while never amounting to anything more than a brief walk-on role as a bit-part actor.
“I ‘ad a friend,” he would announce before embarking on a long, drawn-out, fully descriptive anecdote designed to lift the spirits of his master.
But his rambling tales usually fall on deaf ears. Sir only hears the sound of “the muse,” his own towering ego, and news that he’s playing to a full house.
It is a mystery quite why Norman, or anyone, would put up with Sir’s tantrums and tirades but Shearsmith’s nuanced performance is deeply compelling.
The Dresser is set during World War Two and was often supposed to be based on Harwood’s own experiences as dresser to theatrical tyrant Sir Donald Wolfit. Something the playwright denies.
Perhaps both roles are composites of a number of people Harwood met and associated with during his career but there is no denying that there is a lot of Wolfit in the part.
Whatever the truth I never imagined a broad, wee Scotsman with a lived in face as being Sir.
Ken Scott doesn’t make any attempt at the eloquent and stagy, RADA-taught, received pronunciation, which I expected Sir almost certainly would have affected.
But nevertheless, he gives a powerful turn as the monstrous, domineering, egotistical ham actor and driven company manager.
The bombs are falling as the company prepares for yet another production of King Lear on its tour of third rate provincial theatres.
But the group is in turmoil. Sir has had a breakdown, stripping off in the street and crying like a baby before being carted off to hospital for his own safety.
The problem is that there is no-one to cover for him. The company, deprived of his virile young male actors by the war, is now down to “cripples, old men and Nancy boys”.
Despite his obvious fragile mental and physical health, Sir makes a dramatic entrance at the theatre and it’s up to Norman to get him stage ready for his 227th appearance as the troubled Lear.
Madge, the stage manager (played by the ever reliable Selina Cadell), wants to pull the performance. Her Ladyship, for all her airs, graces and pearls, is actually unmarried to Sir, but she wants him to retire.
“Who really cares if he acts or not?” she asks Norman. “There must be someone” he mutters.
In his few moments of clarity, Sir announces his determination to go on and play a role which mirrors his life. Seconds later he collapses in sheer terror at having to set foot on another stage.
It’s up to Norman to perform a miracle. He cajoles, nannies and flatters – one step at a time – to recover the show’s leading actor from the weeping, trembling broken man sitting before his make-up mirror, trying hard to remember the play’s opening line.
There is a lot of unexpected comedy in Harwood’s play, not least when Sir starts making up for Othello and later, expresses dread at having, as Lear, to pick up his well-upholstered other half (Harriet Thorpe) who is playing his daughter Cordelia.
Stott’s timing is immaculate when he switches, in a heartbeat, from weeping wreck to jubilant thespian on learning that there’s a full house. “A full house? Really?” he beams.
But this isn’t called The Dresser for nothing. Director Sean Foley’s focus throughout is on Norman, the man who has spent 16 years pandering to his employer’s every whim and playing the whipping boy when anything goes wrong.
Norman’s sly swigs from a small brandy bottle throughout cause him get increasingly drunk and spiteful, jealously lashing out at one of the young actresses who has been taking too much of Sir’s attention.
Cruelly, Sir saves the worse of his contempt for the caring Norman right until the bitter end and its a magnificent and touching performance from Shearsmith.
One of the best productions of The Dresser that I have ever seen.
The Dresser runs at the Duke of York’s Theatre until January 14.
An outstanding revival of Ronald Harwood’s tragi-comedy, The Dresser, with command performances from Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith.