FringeReview UK 2016
This Jonathan Church Productions Revival of The Dresser to Theatre Royal Brighton stars Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith. Sean Foley directs. Michael Taylor’s revolve set is a superior product with details of dressing room and a lateral cut-through view from the wings. Ben and Max Ringham’s sound make much of bomb bursts and sudden bursts of period song.
Sean Foley brings this Jonathan Church Productions Revival of The Dresser to Theatre Royal Brighton. Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith lead a strong cast with some outstanding results. Michael Taylor’s strong revolve set – a hyper-naturalist take on a 1941 provincial theatre – is beautifully realised. It’s a superior product with pre-set firewatchers above and details of dressing room and a lateral cut-through view from the wings. The whole production exudes what the design sets up: A superb evening of flat-out provincial Lear perilously swaying on the edge as the bombs fall. Ben and Max Ringham’s sound make much of bomb bursts and sudden bursts of period song.
Harwood was Sir Donald Wolfitt’s Dresser, and though much is autobiography, here ‘Sir’ as he’s known is a notch down, not really knighted, a fine not universally feted actor, exhausted and in the opening clearly entering dementia. The wonder is he hath endured so long. If Stott’s Lear did but usurp his wife as Pussy his common-law ‘Lady’ wife asserts, demanding he quit (as she herself lost the chance to go to Hollywood), Norman his loyal if dyspeptic Dresser is determined the show go on.
Norman’s reasons are complex. Knowing Sir will collapse without Doctor Theatre he’s equally aware the company will collapse without Sir – these are the dying days of the actor-manager companies; there’s no safety net. That includes Norman, a sometime actor facing life in a boarding house. Venal as he is, Harwood convinces us Norman, not above cruelty and savage self-interest, lives for Sir and the theatre itself.
Seeing Sir so clearly even Sir appreciates it, Fool to Lear, Norman gets most of the best lines. When Sir complains of the bombed Grand Theatre Plymouth as his debut venue, Norman returns ‘They weren’t to know’ of the Germans. However when Phoebe Sparrow’s pert Irene the company ‘mattress’ tries moving in on Sir Norman threatens her not just verbally but with promise of violence. He knows her ambitions will kill Sir.
Shearsmith brings out the wild pain of the tremulous Norman beneath: the bitchily loyal, preternaturally hurt boy breaking through the coping equivocating peacemaker and coper of all slings and arrows. His most formidable adversaries in one sense are his closest allies and rivals: Harriet Thorpe makes much of Her Ladyship’s busty now less elfin Cordelia whom Sir must carry on in the last scene. Her contraband chocolate wins out over cigarettes, and Thorpe convinces us she’s not entirely devoid of feeling for her partner. Her embittered entrances exits and flounces slam disappointment, a woman who might have made some living on the silver screen.
More rationally, the administrator who sensibly feels the performance must be cancelled has to be reasoned with. Selina Cadell’s chiselled spinsterhood under the carapace of manager Madge who’s always wistfully desired Sir for herself, coils tender gestures towards the end when her true identity unspools in front of Sir and he promises her his most prized ring – which she later has to claim for herself. The recognition between Stott and Cadell form one set of the most tender exchanges; Cadell’s performance is a tremulously blossoming miracle.
The other is with Norman; their duetting forms the backbone of the evening. Stott’s performances towers because reserves of tremendous energy are shivered out in a crumbling frame exactly like the Lear Sir portrays, a burnt out cage of something vaster in his prime. Does this Sir but slightly know himself?
There’s moments when recognition alternately dawns and dims, when he, like Lear with Gloucester and Cordelia, recognizes the faithful, Norman and Madge. Here the word ‘friend’ or even ‘only friend’ are bestowed capriciously like the ring Sir promises Madge. Stott also unsheaths a Scottish accent as if to underline the effort the armour of Sir has cost and how its slippage argues the distance travelled and the length of the fall from actorly speech.
Stott most of all illumines the sudden fits and weepings Sir falls into, terrifyingly slips of even a human mask beneath the actor’s one. They show us the way a man of towering energy at the extremes can only collapse in a sparks shower, taking everything with him. There’s something of Greek terror in the comedic writing.
You sense Sir’s and Stott’s intense absorption in role not just because of his faintly absurd but sincere speeches but because he can never believe those toiling in storm effects including Norman are doing enough: this always happens when he’s acting well, a heartening back-handed moment.
Sir’s self-ironizing too neatly skewers German bombers, vanishing just when most needed to create the right noises off. Sir scores when he can guy the opposition – hardly ever the Germans.
Moulded round a provincial night’s Lear this reading of a performance through flashes of lightning is most climactic when not begun: Sir’s sudden freeze before his first entrance is tricked out to preternatural lengths, barely credible, yet this sometimes happened. Thereafter you’re willing Sir to get through his sudden fits of desponding, his half invaded by Irene (his picking her up to test Cordelian lightness deliciously mistaken by her).
There’s fine support too from Simon Rouse as the superannuated and promoted Geoffrey as Fool, grateful and suddenly more ambitious. Adam Jackson-Smith’s war-limping Oxenby snorting Bolshevism at Sir whilst showing his real disgust lies in Sir’s not reading his play, is raspingly metallic rather than wooden. His mangling of the last lines as Edgar goes thankfully unnoticed, underlining the play’s scathed edge to the flames.
Foley brisks the pace with a team he can allow to exhale the sour wartime air. It’s the best revival we’re likely to see in a very long time, with outstanding performances from Stott and Shearsmith, with depictions as strong in their way from Cadell and Thorpe, and not a weak link. It’s a masterly play from the inside, and this consummate portrayal of near-disaster ending in a successful one, is as good as it gets.