Duke of York’s Theatre, London – until 14 January 2016
A DEVOTED DIGNITY… I was a little wary of this, the last two productions I saw (including the TV one) having left me mildly irritated and almost bored. For all its skill and wit, there is a slight risk today in programming Ronald Harwood’s backstage play about a monstrous, declining actor-manager and his camp devoted dresser, pitting an etiolated touring Shakespeare company against bombs and near-bankruptcy in 1941. We are at a distance both from the war and from the barnstorming theatrical characters of the 30s and 40s, with their doublet-and-declamation school of Shakespeare and their headlong rep schedule. We are less prone to tolerate domineering self-absorbed monsters too (though a few survive, high-functioning psychopaths in executive or editorial chairs).
But under Sean Foley’s direction, and with a particularly fine and sensitive cast, this time the play speaks clearly of wider human truths as well as sparking and stabbling with irresistible wit (Foley admits surprise on re-reading it at how much he laughed). Reece Shearsmith is perfection as Norman the dresser: gallantly camp, swooping, teasing, a lightning mimic and acidly devoting nanny, the Fool to “Sir”’s Lear. He finely balances the character’s neediness, shafts of sourness and eventual despair against his sparkling ability to entertain not only Sir, but us. Norman dominates the opening, as he will the ending, which is as it should be.
As “Sir”, Ken Stott at last shambles in, unfresh from discharging himself from hospital: orotund and threatening, tubby , dishevelled and disintegrating yet booming still, a disintegrating half-demented Churchill. He sobs, despairs , “I have nothing more to give, I want a tranquil senility” yet does not really believe it is time – despite the pleas of his despairing, weary, stately middle-aged Cordelia: Harriet Thorpe magnificent as “Her Ladyship”. And when some well-tried stimulus reaches through his self-pity (“A full house you say?”) a grin breaks through his ravaged, crudely painted face like the sun itself and for a moment we can join the worshippers. Who are Norman himself, Selina Cadell as the plain, clumping, long-devoted SM Madge, and sycophantic opportunist ingenue Irene (Phoebe Sparrow).
Foley gives every joke its chance, not least the recurrent dead-weight-of-Cordelia theme, nicely appropriate in a year when the RSC allowed its Lear to wheel her on with a cart. The Act 2 opening shades towards Play-That-Goes-Wrong territory as the cast desperately extemporize “Methinks the King is coming?” while Sir sits thunder-browed and unreadable in the wings. Two glorious cameos flare from the war-surplus cast of “cripples, old men and pansies”: Simon Rouse drooping in the Fool’s livery and a furious Oxenby (Adam Jackson-Smith) . Both are enhanced by designer Michael Taylor’s aptly fearful retro costumes ( his set, neatly revolving, turns the theatre inside out before us).
The evening never ceases to entertain, engaging us with knowing theatrical self-parody. But its success finally depends too on respect: on the moments when Norman and Sir lose themselves in blissful mashup quotation of Shakespearian lines, and on acknowledgement of that hardworking idealism about theatre which soldiered on in years of hunger and fear and was propelled, in the end, by something besides mere vanity and habit. The respect is there. Even if, for Norman himself in Shearsmith’s devastating final scene, it wasn’t accorded to him.
box office 0844 871 7627 to 14 jan