Review: The Dresser, Richmond/Duke of York’s

“Hate the critics? I have nothing but compassion for them. How can one hate the crippled, the mentally deficient, and the dead?”

The outdated ramblings of a doddery old man – funny how art can reflect life… Any opinion I might have had about Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser inevitably comes tainted with his apparent inability to open his mouth without spouting some kind of crap or other. Last month it was claiming casting women in male Shakespearean roles as “astonishingly stupid”, earlier this year it was using his will to ban women from playing the lead role in this very play. At 81, he’s clearly of a different generation but I’m certainly not inclined to indulge him in a way one might one’s own casually intolerant older relations.

His 1980 play The Dresser is based on his own experiences as a personal stagehand to actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit and closely too. Wolfit was known for his wartime Shakespearean tours, particularly his King Lear, and so Harwood gives us an increasingly decrepit thesp (Ken Stott) on an interminable regional rep tour in the midst of the Second World War. ‘Sir’ is due onstage (in Lear, natch) and his long-suffering dresser Norman (Reece Shearsmith) is the only one who can get him there, for he is caught in the throes of mental and physical disintegration.

Sean Foley’s production is headed into the Duke of York’s later this week, having toured the regions for the last month, so though I did find it a little surprising that Stott and Shearsmith seemed to lacking the sure-footed chemistry, they clearly have had the time to remedy that before hitting the West End. But I did find the play a little bit tiresome. Theatre loves nowt so much as plays about theatre which is all well and good but not necessarily that interesting: the jokes about regional theatres have been played out time and time again and are beyond stale; and the egotism of a certain class of actor may raise an easy chuckle but feels all the more galling given Harwood’s comments.

For his rationale for never letting a woman take the leading role is it wouldn’t be credible for them to play Lear (or a role like it, one presumes) more than 100 times. Well no they can’t, when the only roles given to them by the likes of himself are underwritten roles like Her Ladyship or stage manager Madge, which Harriet Thorpe and Selina Cadell dispatch with much more heft than is surely on the page to their credit. In fact, I’d wager that Cadell (as Sir) and Thorpe (as Norman) could mount a fantastically moving (and dare I say it better) production themselves – now who’s got the balls to put it on.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 14th January

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