REVIEW: The Dresser, Chichester Festival Theatre, until Saturday, February 4.

Reece Shearsmith and Ken Stott in The Dresser. Photo by Hugo Glendinning

Reece Shearsmith and Ken Stott in The Dresser. Photo by Hugo Glendinning

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Some of the finest, most memorable plays at Chichester Festival Theatre over the past 20 years – The Handyman, Taking Sides and Collaboration – have come from the pen of Ronald Harwood.

Finally now, we get the piece many consider his masterpiece, The Dresser – in a production which shows it has lost none of its power or poignancy in the 37 years since it premiered.

Sean Foley’s astute direction gets the very best out of two actors at the very top of their game, Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith as two men locked in Harwood’s portrait of the strangest, most complex and most fascinating of relationships.

In keeping with so much of Harwood’s work, once again we are viewing reality through the prism of war, but this time we are on the home front, behind the scenes, as an aged Shakespearean actor tries to stir his stumps once again to bring his beloved Bard to the stage.

The actor – known only as Sir and quite brilliantly played by Stott – is a howling, snivelling, exhausted wreck when we first meet him. It falls to his dresser Norman (Shearsmith) to cajole, coax and bully him onto the boards.

Sir bewails an era when, thanks to Herr Hitler, the only available actors are “old men, cripples and Nancy boys” – but he remains blindly convinced of the nobility of his calling despite the shabbiest of surroundings and the lack of talent around him.

Stott captures it all – the capriciousness, the vanity, the agonised uncertainty and, above all perhaps, the sheer tiredness of an actor at the end of his tether and tragically capable only of making things worse for himself. Somehow, you sense there is indeed a kind of nobility here.

But maybe the more interesting of the two is Norman, and you’ll be debating forever what we are supposed to make of this brown-nosed drunk determined that the show must go on – despite Sir’s appalling rudeness and intolerable ingratitude.

In serving Shakespeare, Sir ultimately serves himself – but Norman is more difficult to know, angry, bitter, fawning and manipulative with a waspish wit, genuine charm, a nobility all his own and more than a hint of tragedy. Shearsmith brings him to life with a performance of huge skill.

Harwood’s are plays that stay with you. Taking Sides and Collaboration are probably in the top five Minerva productions ever. The Dresser too comes with abundant theatrical riches in its depiction of wartime theatrical poverty.

Phil Hewitt

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