There are two celluloid versions of Ronald Harwood’s comic-tragedy, The Dresser, that most theatrical of plays, and both of them are vastly superior to this revival; so superior, indeed, that one cannot help but wonder why a revival was thought necessary, or desirable, so soon after the last celluloid version (BBC, 2015). This is more Mr Humphries and Mr Toad than Norman and Sir; arch, tiring and remarkably unfunny.
Ronald Harwood wrote The Dresser in 1980 and it was a smash hit, starring Sir Tom Courtenay and Freddie Jones. In 1983, Courtenay and Albert Finney appeared in a film version which was also a triumph, and in 2015 Sir Ian McKellan and Sir Anthony Hopkins appeared in a BBC television movie of the play, another triumph.
Now playing at The Duke Of York’s Theatre is Sean Foley’s revival of The Dresser, starring Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith, and produced by, amongst others, Jonathan Church, formerly of Chichester Festival Theatre and the Sydney Theatre Company.
At £55 for a non-premium ticket, The Dresser is an expensive and indulgent night in the theatre. Stott and Shearsmith are both good actors in the right role, but neither are in the right role here.
Harwood’s play is a joy. It plays with themes of King Lear wrapped up in a fond recollection of a time when actor-manager theatrical companies toured the U.K. and it is spiced by a fascinating relationship between star and dresser.
In order to succeed, The Dresser needs two superlative performances from the actors playing Sir, the ageing theatrical supremo at the end of his powers, and Norman, the faithful, alcoholic protector Dresser who lives to ensure Sir is ever-ready, ever-supported. This particular symbiotic relationship is hard to make believable, but the play only hits its mark when the characters ooze truth.
Neither Stott nor Shearsmith convince. At all times, one is acutely aware that each is playing a role, acting…As a result, there is too much artifice and not enough art. There is a certain interest in admiring the artifice, but it never rises above that. It’s not possible to believe in their relationship, their world – each whirls in their own space, almost uninterested in the other.
Stott does not even attempt to make Sir real – as if the character was an archetype rather than a creature of flesh and blood. He impresses as, surprisingly, someone who would make a wonderful Toad in The Wind In The Willows. Bluster, bravado and bellicosity are all in abundance, but there is no coherent whole.
For his part, Shearsmith seems to be channelling John Inman in Are You Being Served? but with alcohol as a guiding spirit. He misses the comic potential of the character just as he misses the forlorn, aching desperation that defines the character. Close, well not that close actually, but definitely no cigar.
Occasionally, a sense of clarity arises when Sir and Norman have a moment – but the real beauty in the play comes from the sequences which aren’t moments: the passages where the characters negotiate each other, each other’s moods and caprices, like well worn cogs and wheels. That relationship and what underpins it – that is the joy Harwood’s play offers.
In Foley’s hands, there is little sense of the wonder of theatrical glory here. Strident and more than a little tiresome, the emphasis is on caricatures when it should be on character.
The supporting cast are uneven. Simon Rouse strikes a poignant but undeniably funny pose as Thornton, looking bereft and wan in a costume too large for him. Adam Jackson-Smith is bitter and bilious as the homophobic bit-part player with looks but no talent.
Selina Cadell opts for truculence over unrequited devotion and her Madge seems brittle and awkward as a result. It’s hard to believe that she has been Sir’s longest serving companion. Harriet Thorpe is rather majestic as Her Ladyship, too majestic given the trajectory the character has in the narrative.
Michael Taylor provides a set and costume design which evokes the period well: there is a palpable sense of death in the air, reflecting the incessant bombing of Britain by the Nazis and presaging Sir’s final curtain. James Farncombe’s lighting and Ben and Max Ringham’s music and sound design crisply accompanies Taylor’s efforts – the physical aspects of the world in which Sir and Norman exist are nicely summoned.
What might have been more interesting would have been to see these two actors in the other roles: with Stott as Norman and Shearsmith as Sir, both could not have rested on laurels or coasted. Perhaps it would not have worked, but it would have at least been interesting.
The Dresser is a much better play than this production suggests it is. And Shearsmith and Stott are better actors than this production suggests.
£55 worth of ho-hum.