The Dresser

Chichester Festival Theatre.

We all have one of those days when we can’t remember our lines.

Othello, King Lear: they somehow merge into one sub-conscious flow.

When you are a knight of the stage then it matters more than most. The Luftwaffe may be attempting to bomb the theatre, but the show must go on, even if the hospital would rather that you stayed under observation.

Norman, long-time dresser to Sir understands this, even if Her Ladyship, the cast, the theatre management and even Sir himself would rather the curtain came down.

Ronald Harwood’s backstage drama of the tottering of a giant of the theatre set against a backcloth of Nazi bombs and Shakespearean tempest has lost none of its ability to teetering between tears of laughter and those of agony as Sir descends into Lear-like madness with only his faithful Norman to keep him the right side of sanity.

Norman is a role made for comic genius Reece Shearsmith. His effeminate, mildly waspish, protective fussing could have slipped into bitter regret, yet Shearsmith ensures the audience’s concern is always that of his own, for his bombastic, over-bearing star.

Ken Stott plays Sir in the wondrous twilight of his career. There are hints of the great man’s former glory, but Stott’s Sir is obviously a shadow of his former towering force.

Harriet Thorpe is gorgeous as the long-suffering Her Ladyship, a wife who long ago gave up the care of her husband into the hands of the all-knowing Norman. 

As the bombs begin to fall, and Lear prepares to be betrayed by his family, there’s angst among the cast and even time for a little hanky-panky as the Chichester audience witness the decline of a legend.

In the end the show belongs to Norman and Shearsmith doesn’t fail to make the stage his own. His in the end is the tragedy of Sir’s fade from glory, and the audience feels his anguish as time not Hitler’s Nazis take their toll.

The Dresser runs until Saturday, February 4.

Ian Murray