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Greater London
posted/updated: 09 Sep 2011 -
The Dresser
Ronald Harwood
society/company: Tower Theatre Company (directory)
performance date: 28 Oct 2008
venue: The Bridewell Theatre, 14 Bride Lane, London EC4Y 8EQ
reviewer/s: Raymond Langford Jones (Sardines review)

When, a few years ago, Carole Metcalfe was sadly obliged to disband her company at The Bridewell due to funding cuts, it was to the benefit of a number of fringe and high-profile but itinerant amateur companies, especially the Tower Theatre Company, which had just been made homeless by the cessation of the fifty-year lease on its base in Canonbury. And what a joy it always is to return to this flexible performance area created from a disused Victorian swimming pool - spacious yet intimate, full of old-fashioned atmosphere and perfectly suited to Ronald Harwoods The Dresser.
Set in a provincial theatre during the air raids of 1942, the play focuses on the final hours of Sir, an old-fashioned Shakespearean actor-manager on tour with King Lear and his relationships with his dresser (Norman), his partner (Her Ladyship) and other members of the company. Although Harwood denies that any of the characters is completely drawn from life, the piece was undoubtedly inspired by his own years as young actor with Donald Wolfits company. Every line of his witty tragic-comedy of self-absorbed theatre-folk comes from first-hand experience - and the heart. Sirens wail and bombs fall outside the womb of the playhouse; Sir is ailing, tomorrows uncertain - but the show must go on!

Within minutes of the start of Pat Grosses engaging production, we knew that we were in for a hugely entertaining evening. The memory of Tom Courtenays Norman in the original 1980 production and subsequent film is a hard act to follow, yet Stephen Gray made the part very much his own, with a well-judged blend of campery and pathos. His speech at the end of the play, on discovering how much hes been taken for granted by his hero was deeply affecting. Similarly, Ian Recordons well-modulated portrayal of Sir, evoked sympathy from us for this egotistical monster, a larger-than-life role that can so easily descend into hamminess in the wrong hands.

Indeed, fine performances all round prevented the play from being the two-hander it can be with a less-experienced company. This was very much a team show with nicely observed characterisations from everyone in the eleven-strong cast. If I had some initial reservations about Ann McColgan as Sirs ageing mistress - still playing Cordelia complete with Celia Johnson vowels - they evaporated as she turned early tentativeness to advantage, involving us in her concern for what her life holds in the future, watching sadly as Sir flirts under her nose with a younger, prettier member of the company - a pleasing performance here from Jill Ruanne as the ambitious Irene, who throws her cap at the old man to everyone elses discomfort.

Then there was the slightly butch Madge (Simona Hughes), whose control freakery stems, like her rival Normans, from years of unrequited love for her boss. Henry Chester provided another thoughtful cameo as Geoffrey Thornton, the ever-willing cameo player still honing his skills, desperate for affirmation that hes succeeding. In the King Lear scenes, David Malin, Alexander Gordon Wood, Alistair Maydon, Neal Roberts and Martin Brady all provided good support and just - managed to prevent the on-stage sequence from tipping over into broad comedy!

The open staging enabled Jo Staples to design the best set I have seen for this play, showing us both the tatty star dressing room and, close by, the SM corner and three quarters of the stage itself beautifully realised on the diagonal with a scrim to create the white barrier of light between actors and audience. The lighting design effectively conveyed the atmosphere of a winters evening backstage in a badly-heated and lit theatre and the wartime sound effects were well-chosen and edited. If I had a small quibble, it was the lack of some scratchy introductory and entracte period music but this did not spoil the evening in any way.

The play is perhaps a little too well-made - just too much happens during the interval. But even if this poetic licence prevents it from being a great play, it is certainly a very good one, and this was an exemplary production of it. I understand that The Tower Company has acquired the freehold of a site off Curtain Road and is in discussion with the authorities to build itself a new theatre. Sardines looks forward to great interest to hearing more about this exciting development and keeping readers informed of its progress.

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