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The Dresser

by on 21 March 2019

The Show Must Go On!

The Dresser

by Ronald Harwood

Colwyn Bay and Crewe, in partnership with Blue Fire, Strut and Fret and FTS, at the Hampton Hill Theatre, until 23rd March

Review by Mark Aspen

“No man is an island, entire of itself”, meditates John Donne, but here we have seven human souls floating in Laputian insolation. They do not engage, although they have a common goal. The goal is theatre (theatre with a big T) and, for those of who allow ourselves to be sucked in, we know that Theatre is an obsessive thing. The show must go on, come hell or high water … or the Luftwaffe’s air-raids.

A rep company is touring provincial theatres, but it is January 1942 and not only are bombs damaging theatre buildings, but the audiences are sparse, and most young to middle-aged actors have been called up. Sir, the archetypical actor-manager, struggles to continue; and his loyal dresser is determined to support him. Against this background, Norman, the eponymous dresser in Ronald Harwood’s rightly much acclaimed play, The Dresser, subsumes a role that locks the lives of the two men together. Norman lives his life through Sir and Sir lives his life through the Theatre. However, in Harwood’s hands, the brilliantly written script opens hidden layers underneath this relationship.

The cast of The Dresser is described a “hand-picked” and director John Gilbert has chosen actors well known in the “Swan” circuit (Richmond’s “Oscars”), all have been nominees and most are award winners. Nevertheless, it could be easy to take the strongest cast and rest on their laurels, but Gilbert has taken the strongest cast and tuned the actors to play to their strengths.

The Dresser - Norman & Sir 2

But, as Norman says, “shall we begin at the beginning” because in the gestation of this play a strong production team has conceived an atmospheric setting within an economically efficient set. Designer Junis Olmsheid’s creation is a trucked cut-out of Sir’s dressing room, realised with Alan Corbett to be a revolve, without actually having a revolve, so that the dressing room can be turned to reveal the backstage areas of the provincial theatre. The cluttered, make-do-and-mend room is populated with period-perfect props by Lyn Randell amongst the semi-dilapidated wartime décor, nostalgically created by Olmsheid with the assistance of scenic artist Francesca Stone. The mood is completed by Miriam King’s costumes and the detail of the ladies’ hairstyling.

One of the most gorgeously period be-decked characters is Her Ladyship, Sir’s common-law wife (he didn’t want to press his previous wife for divorce as might spoil his chances of a knighthood) known by Sir as Pussy. (She calls him Bonzo.) The gilt has worn off of Sir’s spelter long ago for Her Ladyship, whose exasperation and disdain for her partner are barely contained, although her festering resentment is tempered with a proprietorial acceptance. Lottie Walker in this role fizzles like a pressure cooker, as Her Ladyship acquiesces in spite of her better judgement. If looks could kill …

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The play opens with Norman and Her Ladyship anxiously discussing Sir’s current health. He has been hospitalised following incidents in the town that morning when he seemed confused and near collapse. Something is “untoward” with him. Her Ladyship is pragmatically in favour of pulling that night’s show, but Norman is confident that he can ensure that Sir will be fit enough to play the lead in King Lear, Sir’s favourite role, that evening. The devoted Norman knows Sir inside out, declaring that he has known Sir for “longer than a lifetime”.

Dresser 8563-1Another member of the company with long service, and devoted service, is Sir’s stage manager, Madge. As with Her Ladyship, Madge’s spectacles have long lost their rose-tint. You see Madge has been “the spinster in the corner”, apparently unappreciated as a woman by Sir. Norman derides her as “sensible”, although secretly seeing her as a rival. She takes the practical view regarding Sir’s “untoward” indisposition that they should cancel. As Madge, Mia Skytte-Jensen exudes a sense of resignation. One can almost feel her annoyed sighs.

Then the door bursts opens and in bursts Sir. He has discharged himself from hospital, is dishevelled and weeping, clearly near to a nervous breakdown. In spite of the seeming hopelessness of the situation, Norman ushers the women away and begins to work his magic on Sir, cajoling and encouraging, badgering and nurturing, all in equal measure.

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Steve Taylor as Sir, the arrogant and obsessive authoritarian, and Daniel Wain as Norman the loyal, painstaking, and sensitive servant, make a symbiotic acting duet. Wain, an actor known for big shouty roles, just gently underplays Norman, not too camp yet not too subservient: a nicely controlled portrayal. Taylor rightly plays Sir big, but stops just short of caricature. Taylor has great stage presence and uses it highly effectively in this measured performance. There is the declaiming pomposity of the egotistical actor-manger, used to getting his own way; but Taylor shows Sir’s vulnerability too.

After 227 performances, Sir has stage-fright and cannot remember his opening lines as Lear. He even fears “the stripes of the critic”. (God forbid, for we critics are gentle creatures.). But Norman’s wheedling works and, when Sir is propelled (almost literally) onto the stage, he gives a virtuosic house bringer-downer. Sir however feels let down, as per usual, with the storm effects. “I wanted a tempest, and you gave me farting flies”. We see the storm effects created in true period style by a wind machine and thunder-sheet. However, these are greatly enhanced by magnificent twenty-first century effects, thanks to skilfully coordinated lighting and sound designs by Tom Shore and Patrick Troughton.

Dresser 8788-1Sir’s cast for King Lear is a motley lot, fill-ins for the actors now called up for the war effort. One such has been drawn out of retirement, Mr Geoffrey Thornton, who plays Lear’s Fool, but in view of his age lacks the physicality demanded in this part. Dave Dadswell in turn plays the reticent and put-upon Geoffrey, as lugubrious and somnolent, but lovable and gracious. Dadswell’s Geffrey is rather like a once-loved but now threadbare teddy-bear, a stupendous piece of acting that defines his character to a tee.

The company has just lost Mr Davenport-Scott, who has just been refused police bail, having been arrested for importuning in a public convenience (although Sir describes Mr D-S’s misdemeanour as little more robustly!) His replacement is Mr Oxenby, a forthright Marxist activist, one of the few people to unnerve Sir. Luke Daxon plays the bolshie Oxenby with a defiant insouciance that is suitable intimidating. However, regardless of Oxenby’s insistence on demarcation of jobs, when the push comes to the shove in the storm scene his shoulder goes to the wheel in spite of himself.

The ingénue in the company is Irene, young and intensely ambitious. She is starry-eyed and quite willing to flaunt her femininity to advance her career. Sir is totally unabashed about exploiting her forwardness and he makes crude but not unwelcome advances. (Not quite 2019: o tempora o mores !) In the nick of time, Norman comes to the rescue, although of whom it is not quite sure.

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And now we see a very nasty side of Norman as he rounds on the girl and bullies her shamelessly and cruelly. Here is the brilliance of Harwood’s writing, for now the audience’s hitherto empathy with Norman is lost as one aspect of his character is stripped off to reveal an unpleasant side. Moreover, clearly Norman’s jealousy is more than for his professional privileged relationship with his boss. From an acting point of view, this gives a great opportunity to show a third dimension to Norman’s character, which Wain rises to consummately. However, this does require equal acting skill from Irene, and Jacinta Collins shines in portraying the uneasy balance of innocence versus coquettishness, of manipulation versus victimhood, and of subjugation versus triumph.

In the same way, Sir has much nastiness under the layers of bombastic eloquence. We learn that this larger than life character lacks all generosity. He is entirely self-centred. His autobiography is to be his “greatest memorial”, but he can hardly start writing it. All is self-centred arrogance that rides rough-shod over the needs of others. Taylor lets us peek at Sir’s deeper layers, and often quite subtly through a gesture or body-language.

The actor-manager as a species lasted two hundred years from the 1750s to the demise of touring repertory theatre after the Second World War. It is parenthesised by Hampton’s David Garrick and Hammersmith’s Sir Donald Wolfit. Ronald Harwood was Wolfit’s dresser, but rigorously denies that The Dresser’s Sir is a portrait of Wolfit, but admits that “what took place night after night in Wolfit’s dressing room is part of the inspiration of the play”. The similarities are there though: Lear was Wolfit’s favourite part (he hated anyone else playing it) and he did play Lear 227 times, for example. However, Wolfit did not die in harness in the theatre during the War. He lasted almost another quarter century, but died near his beloved King’s Theatre, Hammersmith, which ironically was demolished a few years after his death.

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What marked Sir Donald Wolfit was his self-centredness and this he had in common with the fictional Sir. And the bitter, but touching, ending to The Dresser underlines that, in the end, Sir thought only of himself, and Norman thought only of himself. Norman’s last words are to repeat his own mantra, “I had a friend once…”.

… but we know it wasn’t Sir.

Mark Aspen
March 2019

Photography by Pete Messum and Tom Shore

From → Drama, Reviews

One Comment
  1. John Treves permalink

    Steve Taylor was superb in this, and Dave Dadswell and Lottie Walker were outstanding in support of him.

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