Plays (and musicals) about backstage theatrical life are all the rage; the theatregoing public seems endlessly fascinated by life from the stage wings, whether it be with musicals like The Producers and 42nd Street (the latter is due back next year), comedies like Stepping Out (which looks at the world of amateur theatre, also about to return to the West End) and The Libertine (much of it set in the world of the theatre, currently playing at the Haymarket).
But few are simultaneously as affectionate and affecting as Ronald Harwood's The Dresser, a play drawn on Harwood's own experience as a dresser to the great actor-manager Donald Wolfit, but in no way biographical about either Wolfit or himself. But it feels utterly authentic nonetheless -- a play immersed in the real-life guts and greasepaint that go into keeping a show on the road. In this case, the actor-manager who's simply called Sir is visibly a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown -- he's collapsed in the street and has been taken to hospital, but discharged himself and staggers into his dressing room, unable to contain the tears. Not to mention the palpable the fear of facing the mountain of appearing as King Lear yet again (it will be his 227th performance in the role).
With his leading lady (Her Ladyship, though they've never been married) and his loyal stage manager Madge both urging cancellation, it is left to his even more devoted dresser Norman to coax and cajole him to make it to the stage. It is in this key relationship that any production stands or falls, just as the show-within-the-show will as well; and Sean Foley's new staging is blessed with two utterly tremendous performances that make the sense of hopelessness and hope that they respectively embody to shine through.
Ken Stott cuts an imposing but gloriously dishevelled figure as Sir, and Reece Shearsmith's Norman is an endearingly supportive figure with his own inner sadness. This beautiful portrait of backstage life is also galvanised by some very well-observed performances throughout the ranks, including Phoebe Sparrow as an ambitious young actress, Simon Rouse as an unambitious older actor, and Adam Jackson-Smith as a chippy actor who has written a play, and Selina Cadell as the stage manager who has long burnt a candle for Sir's affections while Harriet Thorpe's Ladyship has basked in them.
It is lovely to have this loving play about the theatre back in town.
What the Press Said...
"Sean Foley’s production settles too. It starts by looking nervously for slamming-door farce. It moves into boldly projecting Harwood’s very funny chaos scenes."
Susannah Clapp for The Guardian
"But even in the bittier sections and sketchier characters, the evening is an authentic-feeling pleasure."
Dominic Cavendish The Telegraph
"Sean Foley’s somewhat lacklustre production doesn’t make a convincing case for a West End revival in 2016. Even so, this remains an indestructibly watchable play."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard