Friday, 04 November 2016

The Dresser

Ronald Harwood’s play lifts the curtain on backstage dynamics and a life blighted by a desire for the spotlight

Written by Ian Shuttleworth

 Theatre is a place of wonders, of infinite variety. And some of those varieties don’t quite work, but for no obvious reason. You just sit and... well, wonder.

I've got a possible theory about this revival of Ronald Harwood’s the dresser; I’m not at all sure about it, but it’s the best I can do. And it is this: it may be Michael Frayn’s and Alan Ayckbourn’s fault. Ayckbourn’s a Chorus Of Disapproval, and much more so Frayn’s Noises Off, are so well known and loved that they’ve primed us to expect that every backstage play must be a comedy. So, even though Harwood’s play predates those two, when we see it now we expect it to be about the laughs. But the play’s more complex than that. ian

It starts off in standard theatre-comedy territory, showing a third-rate company during the Second World War conducting endless tours of Shakespeare through towns unnoticed except by Luftwaffe bombers, led by an actor-laddie of the old school known simply as ‘Sir’, who is kept in working order by his camp, bitchy dresser and general dogsbody, Norman.

Over the course of one Thursday, which sees sir’s 277th and, it transpires, final performance as king lear, however, matters move into a minor key, as Harwood muses on personal attachments and their motivations, about how important art is, but how it can never be a replacement for living a life.

My theory is that the expectations we bring to this kind of play, and the way it draws us in at first, make it difficult for us to accommodate these changes of gear – we’re always waiting for another payoff of laughter to let us off the hook. I think this view is backed up by the main credits of this revival. Director Sean Foley and actor Reece Shearsmith are both established as skilled comic talents and keen to show that their respective palettes are broader. Shearsmith has had West End lead roles before, most recently in Betty Blue Eyes (the stage musical version of a Private Function), but his league Of Gentlemen beginnings cast a long shadow and, again, make it easier for us to laugh at Norman even while we wince at his talons flexing. The estimable Ken Stott as Sir, too, conveys less the crumbling ruin of a once mighty figure than the final stages of an inevitable process of rumplement.

Shearsmith gives a fine, detailed performance, and Foley has a keen eye and an alert mind as a director, but for some reason it just doesn’t quite coalesce. It’s nobody’s fault.

Until 14 January at the Duke Of York’s Theatre, London WC2: 0844-871 7623, 

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