The Dresser

Ronald Harwood
Duke of York's
(2005)

Nicholas Lyndhurst and Julian Glover in The Dresser

It is now 25 years since Ronald Harwood's play about the life of touring actors during the Second World War first saw the light of day. This affectionate portrait of a Donald Wolfit-like star and his less than glittery entourage feels very fresh and well deserves its opportunity in the West End. Like the productions that it portrays, Sir Peter Hall's has served its apprenticeship, having toured extensively prior to reaching London.

This is a play that relies on good performances from its central actors, and got them from Tom Courtenay and Freddie Jones first time around with Albert Finney replacing Jones on Academy Award-winning celluloid.

Today, we see Nicholas Lyndhurst throwing off his Rodney mantle from Only Fools and Horses and making a rare stage foray as Norman and Shakespearean veteran Julian Glover taking on the part of "Sir", both delivering the goods in pleasing fashion.

Sir is a booming old man who has known the highs but more regularly the disappointments of a life as an actor/manager in touring rep. His dresser, the very bitchy and camp (to John Inman levels on this occasion) Norman, reveres his hero but also increasingly holds the brittle old man together.

The opening is funny and touching as the veteran actor has to be talked around from hospitalised madness to a point where he can play Lear for the 227th time - and remember all of his lines. Ultimately, the trick is brought off with the use of a mere two magical words - "Full House".

These are delivered by the dresser who is so much more, despite the distractions of the two women who are devoted to the old actor. "Her Ladyship", is his ageing Cordelia and common-law wife, played by Annabel Leventon, while Lisa Sadovy is Madge, his briskly grim stage manager and secret admirer.

The first half takes place in the star dressing room and sees Norman building the actor from a crumbling ruin to a noble edifice. Thereafter, we spend time in the wings as, in true Noises Off fashion, this company of "old men, cripples and nancy boys" excels in what it transpires will be Sir's valedictory Lear.

Sir Peter is well supported by his actors and also designer Simon Higlett, whose clever set rapidly switches from dressing room to stage wings. In both guises it brings out the seediness of a wartime repertory theatre in Aberystwyth, as bombers threaten to achieve what the actor-manager's brush with insanity cannot.

Julian Glover gives a fine performance as a man whose life begins to imitate King Lear as death approaches, while Nicholas Lyndhurst plays Sir's own wise Fool convincingly, once he begins to throw his voice to the back of the house.

The Dresser is a great and often funny portrayal of a character-type no longer seen. The dominant actor-manager, loved by the staff that he upstages and bullies, deserves to be remembered. Thanks to Sir Peter, today's audiences will have the chance to revel in the theatre of yesteryear one more time.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher