The Dresser a Colewyn Bay & Crewe and Bluefire Production: Reviewed by Gemma Craig-Sharples
Hampton Hill Theatre - 25 March 2019
A haze of smoke and Glenn Miller music welcomes the audience into the auditorium for the final performance of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser by Colwyn Bay & Crewe, setting the scene for this wartime foray into the world of theatre, life, and love.
The curtain rises to reveal designer Junis Olmscheid’s impressive set, a cosy dressing room simultaneously evoking the dilapidated tattiness and reassuring warmth of wartime theatre. Daniel Wain as Norman and Lottie Walker as Her Ladyship brilliantly set the tone for the piece, with their tense, fretful exchange establishing an uneasy atmosphere of anxiety and uncertainty which – thanks to Sir’s unreliability – underscores the rest of the play.
Amid heated talk of cancellation, Sir (wonderfully played by Steve Taylor) staggers onstage, having discharged himself from hospital after a diagnosis of exhaustion. Prone to weeping, Sir is a man on the edge: ageing, forgetful, and insecure. For much of the first half he is a pitiable character, with Taylor perfectly capturing the crushed bravado of this struggling man. As he gets into character for his 227th performance as King Lear, however, he starts to change, appearing to acquire Lear’s dignity and authority. It is clear that Sir lives for, and through, his acting. The illusion is nonetheless a fragile one, as Sir repeatedly asks what play they’re performing tonight and what the first line is. Norman is on hand to guide Sir through this ritual preparation, and Wain sensitively conveys the complexity of his relationship to Sir, caught between frustration and devotion. With much cajoling and reassurance, Sir is eventually ready to go on stage – only, when it comes to his entrance, he doesn’t actually want to go on.
In one of the funniest and best-acted scenes of the play, the audience watch the shenanigans behind the scenes as Norman and Her Ladyship try to entice Sir out of his chair whilst the other actors, unseen, valiantly attempt to muddle through onstage. “The King is coming,” says Gloucester. “Methinks I saw the King,” another Knight adds. “Methought so too,” says Her Ladyship as Cordelia, somewhat accusatorily, after having had to give up on Sir behind the scenes and enter alone. Several drumrolls later, Sir is at last dragged out of the chair and makes it onstage, much to the relief of Norman and Stage-Manager Madge (Mia Skytte Jensen).
That the company are equally successful in bringing to life the humour of this scene and the emotional intensity of the subsequent scenes is testament to the skill and sensitivity with which they all perform. As the play careers towards its moving denouement and Sir’s faults become ever more apparent, the audience are reminded of the devastating consequences and all-too-human costs of hubris, selfishness and egocentricity. In light of current political events, it would seem that this message, urging gratitude, consideration, and humility, remains as important and relevant as ever.
Reviewed by Arts Richmond Young Writer Laureate Wi