Ronald Harwood’s celebrated play about life backstage has attracted some big names over the years. Freddie Jones and Tom Courtenay took the leads when it opened in 1980. When the play was adapted for the screen three years later, by Harwood himself, Albert Finney and Courtenay both earned Oscar nominations for their performances. And most recently we’ve had the critically acclaimed TV production starring Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen.
Taste buds were well and truly whetted when it was announced that Ken Stott was to star as the boorish actor manager known simply as “Sir”, alongside Reece Shearsmith as his loyal and long-suffering dresser Norman. Expectations suggested they would fit these roles like a glove, and that proves to be the case.
Possibly the reason actors are attracted to these parts is that it allows them to be larger-than-life and serve things up with a delicious slice of ham. And while both leads here relish the opportunity to be big, they also extract every ounce of pathos from the wonderful text.
It’s 1941 and as Britain comes under bombardment from the Luftwaffe, actor manager Sir tours the country with his company presenting Shakespeare in rep at the provincial theatres still standing.
But Sir is a man in crisis. Whether through genuine illness of the mental kind, or exhaustion brought on by hauling himself on stage every night with a depleted company, Sir is a broken man. A man who’s prone to weeping and increasingly eccentric behaviour. His company continues to rally around with a show-must-go-on spirit that their self-serving boss never really appreciates.
Loyalty comes in the shape of his wife (a wonderfully understated performance from Harriet Thorpe) and long-serving stage manager Madge (Selina Cadell). But at the centre of Sir’s orbit is Norman, a prop he totally depends upon (“what’s the play tonight, Norman?”) and who knows which buttons to press to get the dysfunctional actor on stage when all seems hopeless.
The chemistry between these two is wonderful. Stott is superb and plays it to the hilt as the egotistical thespian who never lets anyone forget who is in charge: “Remember, the boom light is for me. You must find what light you can.”
Shearsmith clucks around his master like a mother hen — never fawning, but cajoling — but also displays a ruthless, bitchy side when slapping down a young company member who thinks she will get to the top by appealing to Sir’s carnal desires.
Harwood’s play is a love letter to the theatre and there’s an element of the farcical Noises Off and The Play That Goes Wrong about proceedings — particularly when the actors have to improvise the Bard while Sir’s Lear is frozen to his chair in the wings. But it’s farce with a darker side that is blessed here with two performances easily the measure of anything that has gone before.
The Dresser is at The Duke of York’s Theatre until 14 January