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Muddy Reviews: The Dresser – Theatre Royal, Brighton

We’re lucky enough to have several plays come to Sussex before their West End transfers and here’s another that’s well worth catching. Ronald Harwood’s much-loved play The Dresser, starring the excellent Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith and directed by Sean Foley is at Theatre Royal Brighton this week only.

The Dresser is a play within a play. Ageing and arrogant actor-manager ‘Sir’ is set to play King Lear and the backstage action loosely echoes the Shakespearean tragedy. Behaving erratically in public, derobing and weeping, Sir seems, like Lear, to be descending into madness. His long-suffering dresser Norman is reminicscent of Lear’s fool, the devoted, cheery right-hand man, cajouling his boss and spinning stories but hiding barbed truths among his comments.


Will Sir manage to appear in that night’s performance and will he, like Lear, come to appreciate the true worth of those most loyal to him?

Though the play debuted in 1980 the action is set in World War II with a backdrop of shortages – not least of fit and able actors, as most are serving are at the front. The performance of Lear even starts during an air raid.

It’s a tragi-comedy with plenty of big laughs and even a touch of farce. Norman is onto the antics of the company ‘mattress’;  Sir dreads carrying on stage the only woman who seems to have somehow got round chocolate rationing; the cast adlib Shakespeare as Sir delays his entrance and make desperate efforts to produce storm sound effects to the star’s liking.


Photo by Hugo Glendinning

Sir (we never learn his real name) has received some acclaim (though not as much as he’d like) and the rest of the theatre company are in his orbit. At one point he warns the actor standing in as Lear’s fool not to use his spotlight on stage: “you must find what light you can.” As The Dresser proceeds we discover more about the backstage tensions. There’s a little more than meets the eye in the relationship between Sir and his dour stage manager, a little less than supposed between himself and the woman everyone believes is his wife. Many have put in years of service for Sir, but has it been worth it?

It helps if you know King Lear, at least in outline, to appreciate for instance the jokes about Sir’s wife having to play Lear’s youngest daughter Cordelia and him railing at the Nazi bombers like Lear at the storm but it’s not vital for enjoyment of the show.


Photo by Hugo Glendinning

The acting from the two leads was outstanding and they received an ovation from the audience when I attended on the opening night. Ken Stott was a tour de force, totally believable as a booming Shakespearean actor yet producing real tears of distress, and Reece Shearsmith excelled in mixing cheerful yet cynical camp with a growing fear and bitterness. He also proved a great mimic, slipping at times into his colleague’s voices.

Both are familiar faces on stage and screen. Stott has received four Best Actor Olivier Award nominations and has appeared in films including The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia and is coming up in a Woody Allen movie. On TV he’s been Ian Rankin’s Rebus and was BAFTA nominated for BBC series The Missing.


Ken Stott as ‘Sir’. Photo by Hugo Glendinning

Reece Shearsmith is best known for his roles in cult TV series The League of Gentlemen and its spin-offs Psychoville and Inside No. 9. You might also recognise Sir’s wife played by Harriet Thorpe who has appeared with French and Saunders in Absolutely Fabulous.

The set is also impressive. The first act takes place almost entirely in Sir’s shabby dressing room with the backstage netherworld beyond hinted by a corridor and overhead gallery in which others move about. Just before the second act it turns surprisingly, to give us a backstage view. A clever diagonal perspective then lets us see both the actors’ tense exchanges in the wings and the action on the ‘stage’ just beyond.

Sir Ronald Harwood who wrote the play was a dresser himself to actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit. Though he has stressed ‘Sir is not Wolfit’, many of the situations in the play have been borrowed from things he observed and that’s no doubt what helps make it such a sharp and funny play.

The dresser runs at the Theatre Royal daily Tues 20 – Sat 24 Sept at 7.45pm with additional matinees on Thurs and Sat at 2.30pm. Theatre Royal, New Road, Brighton,  0844 871 7650 It will transfer to London’s Duke of York’s in Oct.

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