Watford Palace Theatre
When Harwood's The Dresser was first staged in 1980 Sir Donald Wolfit was still within the memory of many of the audience and it was difficult (especially for people in the business) to separate Harwood's leading character, Sir (no name no knighthood, just a polite honorific), from that famous theatrical figure who likewise put so much of his energy into taking Shakespeare's plays the length and breadth of Britain. Now you probably have to be a pensioner to have seen Wolfit appearing in any of his own productions and it is easier to treat 'Sir' as a fictional figure - an advantage, perhaps, for this is a fictional story as Harwood points out in his introduction to the published text. Indeed the script gives its characters biographies clearly different from those of people in Wolfit's wartime companies, though in Di Trevis's revival the spirit of Sir Donald still feels present, even to his curtain-clutching solo call.
We get a splendid picture of an egocentric actor and his relationships with his company and his wife and especially with Norman, his apparently devoted dresser, who has found 'Sir,' apparently in the middle of some kind of breakdown, stamping on his hat in the rain-swept market place of the provincial town where they are playing. He has taken Sir to hospital and now Sir's wife and leading lady and the company stage-manager are about to cancel the night's performance when Sir turns up in his dressing room disoriented and in a state of collapse. Norman is determined that Sir shall perform, but can this wreck really go on as King Lear? We watch what happens from the wings.
Like the middle-aged Wolfit, Sir is described as somewhat bulky (Norman speaks of 'a man of his proportions') and in life Clive Francis seems much more trim so I was surprised the weight that he brings both physically and vocally to the role. It is a fine performance that offers the man's complexities, lifted from despair to vigour by the prospect of a full house, drive by a force that he does not understand. As cajoling, campy Norman, fuelled by quick swigs from his whisky bottle, Graham Turner is very subdued when in Sir's presence but bitchy and savage out of it, the character's insecurity and fears ever present. Sarah Burger gets the pathos of Sir's wife, tired of their exhausting life, of being given short shrift by critics, her frustration reaching boiling point and Penelope Beaumont as stage-manager Madge suggests both her efficiency and her devotion, the person who, most of all, would appreciate the passing on of an historic prop like passing on a sacred trust.
Di Trevis perhaps emphasises the laughs a little too much in the King Lear scenes (though I saw a preview and this could change) but keeps a delicate balance elsewhere. Her direction draws freshly thought performances from her cast and is well served by Ashley Martin-Davis set, with a dressing room cramped down stage in front of a wall of scenery flats that swing around to create the close space of the wings looking through to the another world on stage beyond.
Until 27th September 2008
Reviewer: Howard Loxton