The Dresser | Review
Playing at the Theatre Royal Brighton this week on route to the Duke of York Theatre (West End) is a play called The Dresser, written by acclaimed playwright and screenwriter Ronald Harwood. Although I was vaguely familiar with Harwood’s writing which includes the films The Pianist and Being Julia, I was particularly drawn to see the play due to the casting of Ken Stott, Reece Shearsmith and Harriet Thorpe; three actors whom I greatly admire.
The Dresser is a play about the loyal employee of an actor-manager, who manages a touring Shakespearian company during the war. A dresser assists an actor during a performance and is responsible for the actor’s variety of costumes. From the outset we understand that the dresser in this play, Norman (Reece Shearsmith) is far more than that. Norman has been with his employer (Ken Stott), who is referred to simply as ‘Sir’ throughout the play, for 16 years and cares for him with steadfast dedication.
The play opens in Sir’s dressing room before a production of King Lear, Norman and Her ladyship (Sir’s mistress and leading lady) are concerned about Sir’s health as he has recently been suffering from stress and exhaustion, and was earlier that day admitted to hospital. Her Ladyship believes they should let him rest and cancel the show, however Norman is adamant that he can persuade Sir that he can perform and all will be well.
Ken Stott as ‘Sir’ deftly manages the task of conveying a massive overinflated ego caused by his adoring entourage but at the same time exudes vulnerability and powerlessness. Stott portrays a once great man, now overwhelmed with exhaustion and disillusionment. Yet despite his imperiousness Stott enables the audience to glimpse Sir’s magnetic personality that makes him so irresistible to those around him.
Reece Shearsmith is wonderful as the effeminate Norman who rules the roost as far as looking after Sir is concerned. Even Her Ladyship (Harriet Thorpe) surrenders to Norman’s wishes. It becomes apparent however that the two men are completely dependent on each other. Sir needs Norman’s care yet Norman needs Sir’s appreciation even more.
But Sir doesn’t just demand the devotion of Her Ladyship and Norman, but also from the entourage that surround him- a collection of people varying from the devoted stage manager Madge (Selina Cadell) who has served Sir longer than Norman, to the ‘company mattress’ (Sarah Lambie).
The play draws heavily from Harwood’s experiences from when he himself was a dresser to the actor Donald Wolfit. Although Harwood clearly states that the play is not autobiographical and that his relationship with Wolfit was not at all like the main characters depicted in the play, it is clear that many of the stories and events in The Dresser were certainly based on, if not entirely drawn from his memories.
I was incredibly moved by the events in The Dresser. Under Sean Foley’s careful direction the play has plenty of charm and I heartily recommend it.
Reviewer : Sammi O’Neill
★★★★ Highly Recommended
It will transfer to The Duke of York Theatre London from 5th October 2016 until 14th January 2017.