Friday, 14 October 2016

Theatre review: The Dresser

Ronald Harwood is best-known for his contribution to the field of gibbering misogyny, but he also wrote some plays. Sean Foley's new production of the best-known one, The Dresser, comes to London after a short out-of-town tryout, and follows a co-dependent relationship over the course of one night during World War II. For the last 16 years Norman (Reece Shearsmith) has been personal dresser to the grand old stage actor Sir (Ken Stott,) a fairly well-respected name but appaently not enough to ever get the knighthood he desperately wants. They're currently on their latest leg of an endless regional tour of Shakespearean rep, with a company largely made up of the elderly and injured because all the professional young actors are in the army. Tonight's performance is King Lear, but Sir has gone missing.

Following a crisis of both health and confidence, Sir has wound up in hospital, but having never missed a performance before discharges himself just in time - but it still doesn't necessarily mean he'll go on stage.

It's left to Norman to not just get him dressed for the role but also to massage his ego and deal with his exhaustion and insecurities to make sure he actually manages to perform. The Dresser is a look at a bygone era of theatre but the play itself now also feels as old-fashioned as its subject matter - Jan was surprised to Google the play and find it dates from 1980, having assumed it was written a lot closer to the time it's set. It's played as a tragicomedy but although Stott and Shearsmith throw themselves into the grotesquery of their characters the jokes fall flat, and although the Duke of York's was close to full I didn't hear much more than the occasional chuckle.

That's not to say it's a complete failure of an evening, Michael Taylor's designs evoking the seediness of the setting as well as smoothly getting us from backstage to onstage and back despite the lack of an actual revolve. At times the pathos of the situation is successfully evoked, but Sir is too unpleasant a character - utterly self-involved, ungrateful, Donald Trumping an ingenue as soon as nobody else is looking - to make his story a real tragedy. Harwood's commitment to not letting women get any of the good roles extends to the ones he wrote for them, but Harriet Thorpe as Sir's wife and Selina Cadell as grumpy stage manager Marge make the most of them. There's enjoyment to be had in the performances but Harwood probably needn't have bothered changing his will to ensure there's no gender-blind future revivals - I imagine future revivals in general will be in increasingly short supply.

The Dresser by Ronald Harwood is booking until the 14th of January at the Duke of York's Theatre; then continuing on tour to Chichester.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Hugo Glendinning.

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