Duke of York’s Theatre, London – until 14 January 2016
There’s a timeless nostalgia to Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser that captures a particular snapshot of England during the Second World War. With the country’s fit young men called up to fight, it’s left to the “cripples, old men and Nancy boys” to tread the boards. Having served as actor/manager Sir Donald Wolfit’s dresser during the 1950s, Harwood’s experience provides a bedrock of credibility to the period piece.
Revolving around Sir (played by Ken Stott) and his dresser Norman (Reece Shearsmith), the text plays out during a performance of King Lear. Whilst not a pre-requisite, a working knowledge of Lear helps – for what emerges on stage is not just the parable of Lear and his all-licensed Fool being projected onto Sir and Norman, but we also watch the ageing actor crawl toward death.
Stott and Shearsmith perform well, with Stott capturing the tragic decline of Sir’s body and mind, as Shearsmith, knowingly and in a flurry of campiness after sixteen years of service, devotedly tends to the old man needs. Foley however fails to take his leading actors truly into their characters’ skins. There’s a lack of chemistry between the pair that’s manifest in a lack of empathy from the audience. The second half (which bore witness to a number of post-interval empty seats) drags in a way that Harwood would never have wished, and though Shearsmith is racked with grief at the play’s denouement it’s hard, in this production, to share his pain.
There’s fine work from the supporting cast whose collection of modest roles set the era of time, place and also emotions, perfectly. Harriet Thorpe’s Her Ladyship is a well turned battleaxe of a wife to Sir, while Selina Cadell exquisitely captures an ageing spinster’s pain whose love for the actor had never been returned.
Runs until 14th January 2017, then transfers to ChichesterPhoto credit: Hugo Glendinning