“The Dresser”, by Ronald Harwood
An evocative, perceptive and often hilarious
portrait of backstage life in war-torn Britain.
Unicorn Theatre, Wed August 29th - Sat September 1st 2007
Although this play is an unusual choice for a new theatre company called BreakaLeg Productions, it enables the cast to showcase their impressive talents.
This tragi-comedy, written by Ronald Harwood, and apparently based on some of his own stage experiences as a member of Sir Donald Wolfit’s company, is set in 1942 in a northern theatre. The audience are cleverly brought into the scene and era by the playing of wartime-associated music and use of a projector playing black and white war film scenes showing Churchill and Hitler. The entrance to the Unicorn Theatre has been decorated with World War II memorabilia such as newspapers, pilot records and even an ARP box.
The actors are largely playing the backstage crew and cast of a touring company putting on a production of King Lear. The two main characters are John Crowley, known to the touring company as “Sir”, who is supposed to play the part of King Lear, and Paul Martin, who plays Norman, his wonderfully camp dresser. Both put in strong performances.
In the first act, a crisis looms, as "Sir" appears to be having a mental breakdown and the performance is in danger of last minute cancellation. At Norman’s insistence, the show goes on. He seems to be the one person that can manage to get the lead character, who is unable to remember even his first lines, on stage, by various persuasive techniques.
The second Act is lively, particularly the storm scene from King Lear, with the drama being heightened by an air raid. The part of Cordelia is ably played by Janet Rollett, "Sir"’s long suffering partner (known to the touring company as “Her Ladyship”). Madge, the stage manager, who has been with the company longest and is clearly fond of “Sir”, is played by Julie Kedward.
The play is multi-layered, as each character plays out their out their own frustrations and disappointed hopes against the background of Shakespeare’s tragedy and the real life drama of the war. Deidre Jones has done well in directing this unusual and challenging play, which certainly merits a visit to
The Dresser, by Ronald Harwood, is a masterpiece of modern playwriting, and an ambitious choice by director Deidre Jones for the debut of Breakaleg Productions. Would it work? After all, it is virtually a two-hander... And on the Unicorn’s tiny stage ... ?
Set amid the bombings of World War II, the action centres around ‘Sir,’ an ageing small-time Shakespearean actor who, convinced he is one of the great knights of the theatre, is cosseted and indulged by Norman, his faithful dresser. The ailing Thespian is falling apart, and causing his wife and other cast members great concern as curtain up on King Lear looms ever nearer.
Jon Crowley is magnificent as ‘Sir’, swinging from dignified grandeur to rage to pathos with total conviction. Paul Martin, as nerdy, limp-wristed Norman, brings a new meaning to loyalty and fortitude, playing the part with an almost Uriah Heep obsequiousness. How delicious, then, when ‘Sir’ (surprisingly quietly) pops his clogs and the worm turns. This boy’s performance is, quite simply, staggering.
A strong supporting cast (I particularly liked Alex Codling as the breathless ingénue, Irene) take on their roles in a professional and workmanlike manner. No weak links here – a rare thing in amateur theatre, as we all know.
If I had a criticism, it would be the use of the supporting actors (in full Shakespearean costume) as scene-shifters. It came across as somewhat clumsy, and I would have preferred to see black-clad and unobtrusive stage hands doing the job.
OK, so I’m nitpicking. This play was a triumph, sensitively handled and superbly acted, and worthy of any West End stage.
Well done, one and all – and may Breakaleg Productions go from strength to strength. Just one thought, though – how do you follow this?
(Mary is a writer and playwright, former theatre critic for The Oxford
The Unicorn theatre is charming and well worth a visit, but it does provide a tight stage space for any production. In The Dresser, the stage was well used and the cast excellent. Jon Crowley as Sir put in a 'tour de force' performance combining power, credibility and magnetism. Paul Martin played Norman with just the right amount of campness, bitchiness and pathos - super. The introductory film projected onto the back of the stage to set the period was a little over long, but gave those of us not born at the time of the 2nd World War an insight into British life at the time and the hardships many endured.
It certainly wasn't a hardship to watch this excellent production last week. Well done all.
Bindy57 - www.Dailyinfo.co.uk, 03/09/07