Stage Side

The Dresser


Director Sean Foley, Producer Mark Goucher

Most of us have met a Norman, the leading man’s obsequious personal assistant in the current production of The Dresser, Ronald Harwood’s play set in the theatre during World War Two.

But this Norman, as perfected by Reece Shearsmith, is more wonderfully supercilious, vulnerable, waspish and ill-used than most.  He is the epitome of an endangered species, but the one keeping the world’s knife-edge balance from tipping over into oblivion.

Sir, played by Ken Stott, is almost as tragic as the part he is playing on stage tonight, that of King Lear.  An ageing star, stuttering in the wartime firmament of elderly and war-wounded actors, he personifies the overblown, actor-manager of yesteryear. 

The struggle to keep the show on the road, as the company tours the provinces amid air raids, apparently falls to Sir.  In truth it falls to Norman as Sir swings between lucidity and lunacy.  He has played Lear more than 200 times but can’t remember his first line, demanding it of Norman and berating him for the prompt.

Our tortured thespian has discharged himself from hospital, but will he be capable of appearing on stage before what Norman assures him is a full house?

The faithful stage manager Madge (played by Selina Cadell) is intent on cancelling. Her Ladyship, Sir’s well-padded wife, (Harriet Thorpe) playing Lear’s daughter Cordelia, despite her bulk and years, is intent on cancelling.

Norman, however, has been here before and, sustained by nips from the bottle hidden behind his pinny, determines that the show must go on.

First performed in 1980 in the West End and on Broadway, the play was in 1983 made into a multi award-winning film starring Albert Finnay and Tom Courtenay.  A recent TV film version starredIan McKellen and Anthony Hopkins.

But perhaps only the theatre can faithfully portray this story.  I saw this new production in Richmond.  It plays in Brighton and Cheltenham, before arriving  at The Duke of York's Theatre for its London run.

Patricia McLoughlin