by Ronald Harewood
Directed by Sean Foley
Set and costume by Michael Taylor
Chichester Festival Theatre
Saturday 28th January 2017. 14.30
CAST IN ORDER OF APPEARANCE:
Reece Shearsmith – Norman
Harriet Thorpe – “Her Ladyship”
Selina Cadell – Stage Manager
Ken Stott – “Sir”
Phoebe Sparrow- Irene
Simon Rouse- Geoffrey Thornton (playing “The Fool”)
Adam Jackson-Smith- Oxenby
Anthony Hoggard – Kent
Simon Markey- Gloucester
Sarah Lambie – Her Ladyship’s dresser
Rhys Jennings – Albany
Pamela Hardman – Knight
The Dresser dates from 1980, and Ronald Harewood based the story on his experiences as Sir Donald Wolfit’s personal assistant in the 1950s, though he says in the introduction that the ageing actor-manager, “Sir,” in the play is not Wolfit.
The 2016 West End run of this production had glowing reviews, and it is now on tour. We wanted to see it in London last year, and we already had something booked for Saturday afternoon, so were looking at Friday night or Saturday night. Decent seats came up at a mind-boggling three figures … small change for Broadway, but very pricey for a London production, so we passed. We didn’t know the play at all in spite of the praised 1983 film, and 2015 TV version. The publicity was a factor – it sounded like a two and a half hour dialogue, a two-parter set in a dressing room, so over-priced. Misleading. It has a cast of twelve. Tellingly, I could only find pictures of the two principals on line, plus one of Her Ladyship, the next most major role.
While we book six months ahead, we book very little for late January … snow or fog can change travel plans. We got an e-mail reminder from Chichester and booked at the last moment … at less than one third of London prices. It is of course a much larger theatre. That causes some issues, in that the stage is far larger than the set, stranding the cast three metres from the edge, and five or six metres from the front row. It works better in the sections where we see the onstage performance of the play-within-a-play and backstage simultaneously, so they can make use of the large semi-thrust stage. The dressing room sections of the play are like an island in a sea of stage though, and they have moved the play from a proscenium theatre to a semi thrust semi-circular stage with the audience curving round on three sides. Chichester is probably my favourite theatre, but The Dresser would obviously borrow ambience from a gilded, uncomfortable smaller West End Theatre … which looked like the one in the play.
The play is set during World War II based on the official attempts to bring Arts and Culture (my caps) to the provinces, with a production of King Lear. The company are into rep at a mind-boggling rate. They did Othello the day before, and are doing Richard III then The Merchant of Venice on the following days. The obvious link is Terence Rattigan’s Harlequinade, also set in the war time provincial culture tour, but based on Romeo & Juliet. The Branagh company’s recent Harlequinade definitely used the actual unpleasant West End building to support the feel of the play, as did Branagh’s other 2016 backstage venture, The Entertainer. The director here, Sean Foley, worked with the Branagh company in the 2016 season too, directing The Painkiller.
In this play, we are backstage before “Sir’s” 227th performance of Lear … we recently watched the marvellous Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows, set backstage at the “Burbage Festival Theatre.” Season 3 (2006) is about an ageing thespian with health issues booked to do King Lear too.
Norman (Reece Shersmith) offers tea and sympathy to Sir (Ken Stott)
Our central character is Norman, an ex-actor who has spent 16 years as the dresser to “Sir.” His service is only rivalled by the stage manager (Selina Cadell) who has been with the company for twenty years, and who carries a secret torch for Sir, its leader. The company is in trouble. All the fit young men are away at the war. Their main supporting actor, Davenport Scott, who plays The Fool, has been arrested as a “bugger.” It’s understudy time. They’re down to “cripples, old men and Nancy Boys.” Oxenby (Adam Jackson-Smith) has a stiff leg and limps around as Edmund in King Lear, Geoffrey Thornton (Simon Rouse) is the ageing understudy playing The Fool in Davenport’s much larger jester costume, and Norman the dresser (Reece Shearsmith) has to take over Davenport Scott’s audience announcements to the audience. That covers the three categories.
Sir has finally been persuaded to begin getting made up.
There is a war on, and a running joke is Sir’s demands for a louder storm scene and the fact that the play-within-a-play (King Lear) is punctuated with air raid sirens and bomb explosions from without.
The title Sir is ironic in that Norman always addresses him as such in backstage etiquette but unlike his rivals, our Sir has never been knighted. While he pretends to be married to his lover and co-star, Her Ladyship, he had never actually divorced his first wife, hence is unacceptable at the palace … hang on, that inability to divorce is exactly the same plot device as Harlequinade.
Her Ladyship is called “Pussy” by Sir, not his only Donald Trump note. Sir is a groper. The young Irene is the groped. There is also a joke on Her Ladyship playing Cordelia, which veers into Harlequinade territory too. Rattigan’s joke is that the actor-manager and his partner are way too old to be playing Romeo & Juliet. Here, Her Ladyship is far too old to be playing Cordelia, Lear’s youngest daughter. That brings in something that concerns me every time I see Lear, that is the task of the ageing actor at the end of carrying Cordelia’s body onto the stage. Over many years, it has given wispy actresses a head start in auditioning for Cordelia. I always find myself wondering how they will manage it. In the 2016 RSC production, Antony Sher got away with it by being pushed on, seated on a cart with Cordelia draped across him. It turns out here to be Sir’s excuse for groping. While Irene (Phoebe Sparrow), described by Norman as “the company mattress,” thinks his groping is her chance for success via the casting couch, Sir is really seeking a thinner and much lighter Cordelia whom he can carry without severe back strain.
The reason publicity makes it look like a two-parter is that Reece Shearsmith as Norman, and Ken Stott as Sir are the dominating personalities, in the script and on the stage. Both are towering performances. Their relationship makes it a tragicomedy, though with zero prior knowledge of the play, I thought the end signposted from about the tenth minute. Sir has broken down in the street, in a fit of nervous rage, and ended up in hospital. He discharges himself, but has to be coaxed throughout to keep going by Norman. In the depths of his despair and self-pitying tears, Norman can always bring the spark back to Sir’s eyes with the magic phrase “It’s a full house.”
Not surprisingly, most London 2016 reviews focus on these magnificent lead performances. I was surprised that some were sniffy about the short Lear section at the start of Act 2. I loved that, with Sir stranded twitching in the wings, while the thespians playing the start of King Lear are stranded out in the spotlights, wildly trying to extemporise cod-Shakesperean lines, while the backstage crew try to get him on stage. This is the kind of thing we expect in backstage comedies like Harlequinade and Noises Off, but The Dresser, like The Entertainer, is not a farce, nor an outright comedy either.
The play has a fascinating short dialogue towards the end, when Geoffrey comes to thank Sir for his elevation to the part of The Fool. In a long career, Geoffrey has never played big parts. He has faithfully followed Sir’s instructions to “find your own light” and keep out of Sir’s spotlight, and to be stock still while Sir is declaiming. Sir suggests that Cordelia / The Fool were played by one actor in Shakespeare’s day, as they never appear together. This is nonsense, as it is known that Robert Armin was Shakespeare’s Fool. We know that the clown parts changed, with songs and verbal humour coming in once Armin replaced Will Kemp with his talent for slapstick.
However, the conversation on doubling and making use of everyone to the full reflects on this play, because it does have eight quite minor parts, which is an imbalance in casting and production. Having said that, I though the minor characters excelled, especially in their Shakespeare roles. Special mention for Adam Jackson-Smith as the limping, bad-tempered Oxenby, who loathes “Sir” and resists being made to help with sound effects until the very last second.
Harriet Thorpe as Her Ladyship, who is playing Cordelia
Our main gripe was that some of the projection was not as good as it can be. It’s a huge theatre, and for its musicals, everyone has mics. Here we were on natural actor air. We were in Row N, to the side of the centre. These are still Band A priced seats. I don’t think they should be … we’re usually much further forward and more central at Chichester because we book early. We found some of the dialogue hard to hear, and in particular Harriet Thorpe as Her Ladyship. I thought she was brilliant on TV as Carole in The Brittass Empire years ago. Her projection was maybe slightly less than those around her, but compounded by a tendency to gabble the lines. I have heard actors discuss “matinee gabble” but actually this ran ten minutes over the advertised time, so I don’t think that was it, but rather “Carole”s trademark fast breathy delivery. She was superb in every other way, but we both found her speeches hard to grasp from the seats where we were. Interestingly, in 2015, friends sitting further back than us had made a similar complaint about Platonov, which had been crystal clear where we were sitting. So it is probably the sheer size of the auditorium.
I had had the impression until I read the reviews while writing this, that it had been garlanded with four and five star reviews. The publicity has two “five star quotes” (Sunday Express, Mail on Sunday). Not so elsewhere. It gets some three stars, and some four stars from the national press. For me, it’s a three. I suspect in a closer, more intimate old theatre it would gain a star.
WHAT THE PAPERS SAID (London production):
Quentin Letts, Mail on Sunday *****
Michael Arditti, Sunday Express *****
Dominic Cavendish, Daily Telegraph ****
Susannah Clapp, The Observer ****
Mark Shenton, The Stage, ****
Neil Norman, Daily Express ****
Michael Billington, The Guardian ***
Ian Shuttleworth, Financial Times ***
Fiona Mountford, Evening Standard ***
LINKS ON THIS SITE:
Sean Foley (Director)
The Painkiller, Branagh Company 2016 – adaptor
Jeeves & Wooster in “Perfect Nonsense” 2013 – director
A Mad World My Masters, RSC 2013 – edited by Sean Foley
The Ladykillers, 2011 – director
Hangmen, Royal Court 2015- Syd
Hangmen, Royal Court 2015- Arthur