It’s becoming something of a current theme in the West End for one show to be about putting on another.
Funny Girl. Gypsy. The Libertine. All are shows of recent months that have explored the relationship between the craft of the stage and the performer, each to varying degrees of success, pathos and drama.
In The Dresser, a similar template is used, but the thing that makes this production stand out from the crowd is the way the story weaves the relationship between a revered wartime actor – referred to here simply as “Sir”(Ken Stott) – and his backstage helped Norman (Reese Shearsmith, as the production’s titular dresser) into its theatrical setting.
The show is something of a love letter to the theatre, but is also so full of spite that it could easily be construed as hate mail as well. This is good a thing though, not a criticism. The script is full of wit and dry humour, and there’s a certain cattiness that permeates throughout the production, right from the opening scenes, before it crashes through to devastating effect in the final act.
Shearsmith and Stott are on top form as well, revelling in two roles that are equally as grotesque as they are funny, captivating and, oddly, charming. The story itself focuses on Sir, whose part-time Shakespearean company are at odds after he goes missing hours before the curtain goes up on their latest production of King Lear.
Backstage, Norman (who has worked with Sir for years) tries to calm his wife (played by a gleeful Harriet Thorpe) and the rest of the cast before their leading man returns, broken, shattered and bewildered – showing signs of PTSD and shellshock.
Will the evening’s performance go ahead? Can Norman talk his master back from the brink before it’s too late? How much does Sir need the stage? How much does Norman? And how much is the strange dependency these two men share really founded on trust and respect for one another?
Clever, funny and darkly woven, The Dresser tells a powerful story of need, greed, dishonesty and chaos. It’s an intense experience, but well worth the ride.
The Dresser is currently playing at The Duke of York’s Theatre. Get your tickets now via Ticketmaster.co.uk.