REVIEW: The Dresser at Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham: September 27-October 1
PUBLISHED: 17:42 28 September 2016 | UPDATED: 17:25 20 October 2016
Candia McKormack experiences the extreme highs and lows of an astonishing comedy with a dark – but warm – heart at Cheltenham’s Everyman Theatre
“The critics? No, I have nothing but compassion for them. How can I hate the crippled, the mentally deficient, and the dead?”
Ken Stott as ‘Sir’ in The Dresser
Fresh from the opening night of The Dresser at Cheltenham’s Everyman, and with these words ringing in my ears, here I am grasping the nettle and sharing my thoughts of the night’s performance.
Had I considered myself a ‘critic’ then I might have felt more self-conscious putting my views across – though that’s something of an oxymoron as those without conscience can’t feel self-conscious, surely… Anyway, before I get my knickers in an untangleable twist, I wasn’t there as a critic, or even a reviewer necessarily; I spent the evening in row F as a completely gripped, deeply appreciative and astonished theatregoer.
Ronald Harwood’s play is set in a provincial theatre during the Second World War, and focuses on the relationship between an ageing Shakespearean actor (‘Sir’, played by Ken Stott) and his dresser Norman (Reece Shearsmith). It opens in Sir’s shabby backstage room of the theatre where we eavesdrop on an increasingly distressed (and high-pitched) conversation between Norman and Sir’s wife, Her Ladyship (played by a fabulously pompous Harriet Thorpe). Sir has gone AWOL, you see – last seen stamping on his hat in the rain in a state of undress – and he’s due to play King Lear in an hour’s time. Her Ladyship is keen to keep up appearances; his faithful stage manager of “nearly 20” years, Madge (played brilliantly by Selina Cadell) is concerned for his health; and, as for Norman, every atom of his being is geared up to making sure that Sir hits his cue on time – whatever it takes.
What follows is a journey akin to driving a humpback-bridged road in a clown’s car with exaggerated suspension; you lurch from explosive laughter to bottom lip-biting concern for the characters, back to laughter again. God only knows how the cast felt after the performance, but I don’t mind admitting I was wrung out. Completely knackered.
From Sir’s arrival at his dressing room door in a dishevelled state, shock-haired in mud-stained pinstripe suit, to him sobbing uncontrollably in Norman’s arms, this is dark comedy at its best… and when it comes to dark comedy, Reece Shearsmith has first-class honours with distinction. The man who helped introduce us to The League of Gentlemen and Inside No 9 likes his comedy darker than most would dare, and the role of Norman seems a gift to his comic sensibilities. The comic timing between all the players was brilliant, but Reece’s furrowed-browed expressions and physical acting – leaning in towards Ken Stott with hands clasped, willing the ham-actor to get into the character of Lear was sublime. As he coaxed and cajoled him into putting on the panstick, the audience was with him all the way… we all felt as anxious as he as he tentatively checked his watch while attempting to hide from his emotionally unstable boss the urgency of the situation.
Oh, and the confusion! Not only does Sir not know which provincial town he’s currently in (forgivable), but he also doesn’t know which Shakespearean role he’s about to play (terrifying). At one point, as Norman leaves him momentarily to put on his make-up, it seems as though Sir is almost in control of the situation as he steadily applies Leichner to the side of the face we can’t see. It’s only when Norman enters the room and gasps “No, not Othello!” do we realise the gaff. Brilliant.
The characters flowed seamlessly around the beautifully-designed set, which not only allowed us a backstage pass to all the fraught action but also, when it came time for the players to act out King Lear to the imaginary audience, we experienced all the dramas in the wings while the actors projected their Shakespearean performance to the ‘auditorium’ somewhere in the wings stage right. There goes the knicker tangle again… it really makes perfect sense when you see it, I promise.
The Dresser is a wonderful play that I’m sure will have a profound effect on all that experience it – whether it be Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay in the 1983 movie, or the more recent Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen production – but, being in the Everyman Theatre on a September night in 2016 with Sean Foley’s direction and the faultless casting, it was a privilege to be part of.
When I have grandchildren, they will be told.
• Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham. Box office on 01242 572573 or visit www.everymantheatre.org.uk
• Read an interview with Reece Shearsmith here.
• The Dresser, starring Reece Shearsmith and Ken Stott, is showing at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London until January 14, 2017. For discounted tickets visit www.cheaptheatretickets.com/the-dresser