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BWW Review: THE DRESSER, Duke of York's Theatre, 13 October 2016

In the theatre it is well known that, no matter what, the show must go on. This sentiment has rarely been portrayed so poignantly as it is in Ronald Harwood's Olivier Award-nominated play The Dresser. First performed in 1980, the play returns to the West End in a fabulous revival of the tragicomedy that delves into the psyche of an actor well past his prime.

The story focuses on Sir, a once renowned Shakespearean actor, reduced to playing to provincial audiences. As the bombs of the Second World War descend outside, we meet him struggling to prepare for his renowned lead role in King Lear, while his dutiful dresser attempts to rouse another performance from him.

We meet Sir as he appears to be physically and mentally crumbling; dishevelled, red-faced and unsteady on his feet, he strikes a very pitiful figure in clear mental distress. Olivier Award winner Ken Stott is wonderful as he plays Sir as a more sympathetic character than we may have seen before.

There are flashes of rampant egotism so well known of the character, but his disintegration is so heartfelt, he also inspires heartfelt sympathy. Physical messages of distress, such as a subtly, but constantly, shaking hand are perfectly pitched.

Reece Shearsmith is magnificent as Norman: acerbic, witty and camp to the point of comedy rather than parody. He gives a truly emotive portrayal of stoic cheerfulness in the face of potential disaster. Shearsmith handles the key change in Norman's character as he becomes more inebriated and catty beautifully. He is completely emotionally invested in Sir and his loyalty is tangible.

But it is the chemistry between Stott and Shearsmith that makes this play. The relationship is claustrophobic and it's revealed that Norman needs Sir as much as Sir needs him. When Norman is effectively abandoned by his master, his pain and bitterness at being supposedly forgotten is truly heartbreaking.

Stott and Shearsmith are very ably supported. Harriet Thorpe makes for a commanding partner to Sir as Her Ladyship, handling the humour of playing Cordelia at an advanced age and a heavier-than-ideal weight in a suitably imperious manner. Selina Cadell is beautifully stiff and British as long-suffering stage manager Madge.

Writer Ronald Harwood draws on all his experiences as a dresser and manager who worked for the Shakespearean actor Sir Donald Wolfit - legendary in his pomposity and difficult nature. Under Sean Foley's direction, Stott and Shearsmith relish the brilliance of the comedic writing, but also the tragedy lying underneath. As Sir tells a fellow actor, "You must find what light you can".

The quirks and nuances of theatrical life are laid bare. The bitchiness, the egotism and profound depth of relationships behind the scenes are portrayed beautifully and are often excruciatingly funny. It is not a perfect show, however, with the second act losing some pace and the sub-plots, such as Sir's groping of a young actress, not explored sufficiently.

Michael Taylor's set is fabulous: incredibly evocative as the rundown dressing room in a provincial theatre, it rotates on its own axis to show both the stage and the wings in clever detail. Foley's deft direction exploits this staging brilliantly, as the audience follows the cast as they walk through the numerous doors and corridors of backstage while the stage moves.

This is a hugely enjoyable revival of a classic that will leave you ever so slightly heartbroken. A real treat.

The Dresser is at Duke of York's Theatre until 14 January 2017

Photo credit: Ana Maria Wiggins

Read our interview with Harriet Thorpe

See more pictures of The Dresser

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