Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

dresser cast

The longsuffering Madge (Ruth Jones), Sir kitted out as King Lear (Kevin Coughlan) and a struggling Norman (Alan Wales). Pictures: Steve Vent

The Dresser

The Priory, Kenilworth


Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser is a wonderful, ridiculous comedy. The crucial thing is that it should be, mostly but not entirely, a joyous, delicious shambles. And that is what Stuart Lawson, the Priory Theatre’s current Artistic Director, has ensured with their latest comic production.

Of course, the two focal points for this constant vocal and emotional tussle are the ‘greatest Shakespearian actor of our time’, here referred to simply as ‘Sir’, and his longstanding mainstay, patient, suffering manservant and deeply affectionate stooge, Norman – The Dresser of the title.

Norman has to put up with the tantrums, the angsts, the crises of confidence, the impossible shifting moods, the battles of nerves, the chaotic outbursts and appalling overacting, the nervous explosions, not to mention the forgetting of lines, of his impossible charge.

But Harwood fits round this half a dozen extra characters, principally the cast of their up and running King Lear (which at the start looks as if it will have to be cancelled), who ring the dramatic changes and occasionally have a telling scene with Sir alone, each one impressive, though in most cases wickedly fobbed off by Norman, impossibly jealous and determined to keep the actor knight firmly under is thumb.

Alan Wales gives a wonderfully exhausted yet actually controlling performance as Norman. Apart from the use of the word ‘ducky’ and the (very) occasional waggle of the hips or slight mince he manages to produce a cogent character without resorting to tiresome or overdone camp.

Thus we take him seriously, in his own right. He has a treasure trove of moves and gestures – always quick to anticipate and prevent the next impending disaster. His face is a miracle of pouting, pursed lips, lolling tongue, exhausted or mischievous grimaces.

His moves – embracing something of a waddle – contain a welter of varied ingredients, not least when he is rushing to catch some disaster before it happens, or standing, fingers crossed, but waiting for the next inevitability. His voice is so restrained and tolerant that it’s a marvel when he actually manages to drop it further, as if nursing and ever so gently coaxing the irrepressible Sir.

Time and again Norman saves the sitution, thanks to long experience, vast tolerance and sheer tenderness. It is Sir’s job, or inflexible habit, to rant and rave, but Wales found a hundred ways to soothe and salve and calm in return. And that warmth, and dependence, for Sir in his saner moments truly appreciates and leans on Norman, is essential to the drama. Only at the (unexpected) end – the death - does Norman, poignantly, let all that anguish out.

Kevin Coughlan’s Sir is, aptly, a wreck at the start. He has been dangerously ill – and his crashed-out way of flopping on a sofa/chaise long couldn’t make it clearer. Norman has a nightmare endeavouring to crank him up. But it’s when he gets to the makeup table, and stage by stage emerges – moustache, amply flowing white beard, astonishingly flowing Lear wig – that Coughlan’s Sir grows into a giant of a figure.


The loyal but exhausted Norman  tries desperately to prepare Sir  to get into what will prove his final appearance as King Lear

The ranting and the raving grow subtly into the explosive temperament of Lear himself, especially during the thunderous storm scene. Most of those fragments we hear from rear stage, and powerful they are indeed.

But Sir is a mental mess: a chunk of the comedy derives, for instance, from his ability to remember even Lear’s regal but unmemorable opening lines. It’s all wonderfully ironic, exhausting the patience of his entire backstage team, and the more amusing because (it seems) Coughlan’s need for a series of prompts.

They serve, actually, as if a deliberate and integral part of the play: especially when one of them is ‘I can’t remember the first line’. After the opening shenanigans, Sir, you would think, needs a lot of verbal propping up. In its ironic way, it all added to the fun.

When he says, sharply, ‘I am surrounded by vipers’, is it Sir speaking, or the battered and beleaguered King himself? Somehow Lawson manages to delve under the skin of the text to produce from Coughlan a constant alternation of great actor and great role. It needs that kind of confusion. It’s there in the Harwood.

One of the sad little moments, among many is that, as this is a performance during wartime, the news comes through that the Grand Theatre in Plymouth has been bombed to pieces. It’s a place, Sir says sadly, where his early career took off. And he keeps returning to it, musing as if on an old friend’s demise.

There is a hoot – perhaps it needed playing up a little bit more – where Lear begins, to Norman’s desperation, to make up as Othello - when Norman comes up with a gem: ‘Sir, it’s time to age’ It was one of the most wittily delivered lines of the play – and there were many of them to follow.

We are treated, briefly, to two members of the cast: Mr, Oxenby (Des King), and Mr. Thornton (Brian Goredema-Braid), who plays the Fool. They are briefly summoned: Sir, for no obvious reason, wants to see that all is well. It isn’t. The former is a model of sarcasm verging on venom, sneering and only too happy to taunt his employer and insult him, perhaps not without due cause, to his face.

He is not really a part of the outwardly happy team. The latter, clad in a footling, deliberately over-elaborate outfit befitting Lear’s court jester (though not the victim of the storm), is a hapless twerp.

When he sings, quavering and appallingly, ‘When that I was and a tiny little boy’ he gets short shrift: ‘Say it, don’t sing it!’ But the remarkable thing is that towards the close Mr. Thornton turns up, in civvies and out of part, and delivers one of the best soliloquies of the whole production, fabulously well-spoken. It was a big moment.


A deliciously flirtatious, shamelessly available Irene (Gina Towle) catches the attention of Sir



And big moments like this helped lift the play to a very decent level. The Priory does well in manipulating what is a pretty small stage, using three levels here: a main front stage, the dressing room, where most of the altercations between Norman and Sir takes place; a rather cramped short platform or mezzanine just above; and a rear display which shows, rather brilliantly, with effective lighting and notably well designed, a city in the process of being bombed.

Linking them is a little staircase, not much bigger than a widened ladder, which in itself gives a feeling of cramped rearstage or below stage toings and froings. It’s all pretty tight, but it conveys the hemmed in, rather claustrophobic feeling rather well: this is touring theatre, what with Lear and the Scottish Play and Othello all on different days, and who knows what dismal surroundings a cast may have to put up with?

The person, apart from Norman, who really has to put up with Sir’s exhausting and unpredictable foibles, is his wife, ‘Her Ladyship’ (Dawn Spencer-Morris). Wales’s Norman gets the play off to a terrific speed, whisking through his solo bit at a whirling pace, but then these two strong, firm-set, to some extent opposed characters together are gloriously offset: their determined exchange, shared anxieties, patient sufferings, and exasperated tensions, all evident, whizzed by in quickfire alternation – the Greeks had a word for it, ‘stichomythia’, which means rapid exchange of single lines – and the pacing, presumably devised by the director, worked a bomb.

To get the play off to a brisk start – after all, the arrival of a crumbly, exhausted Sir inevitably whittles the pace down – was an inspired idea. Her Ladyship (who bizarrely plays Cordelia) has her own confrontation with her husband near the play’s close, and here again we have one of those set-piece scenes where Harwood winkles his way into the characters’ inner agues. With her, Sir is forced to speak normally. It’s a powerful exchange, all the more for being their last before he unexpectedly expires. The fact that they both speak so splendidly and lucidly makes the impact all the greater.

Madge (Ruth Jones), who had been his put-upon Stage Manager for almost 20 years, is another of the characters who has a set-piece with Sir. Their exchange is all the more poignant because one learns that Madge, like Norman, has been loyal to Sir for umpteen seasons, and that Madge is, has, in fact, been pretty much in love with her employer for all that time.

She too has put up with his merciless onslaughts, his unkind put-downs, his ritual demeanings. It’s near the end that Madge comes into her own. Prior to that she is just an unfortunate pawn, seeking, nobly, to get the show on the road.

She did tend to dutifully, but a bit woodenly, face the audience, causing Norman to do the same - surely a bit too out of date and amateur a device these days. And the costume department, or she herself, had not done Madge a favour. Clad in a two-piece jacket and skirt – rather like the fashion some years ago for a demure twin set - she was made to look the very opposite of a stage manager, calling all the cues.

 Jeans and shirt sleeves, or any kind of rough-hewn outfit, would have seen much more appropriate. Still, when Madge’s disappointment at being taken for granted emerges during that focal sequence, she fashions a character as distressed and disappointed as Norman. It was a good, well managed scene.

The surprise of this production, for me at least - subtle movement, sly, cheeky but not impudent gestures, the lightest of flirtatiousness - was Gina Towle’s appearances as Irene, more or less the young gopher of this backstage team. A former member of the Priory’s able Youth Theatre, she had all a director could require: a carefully contrived character of her own, building a small part into rather a special and tangible stage presence.

Not sucking up, but genuinely affectionate towards the older man. Sir, we gather, likes young fillies, and when he picks Irene up and cherishingly wheels her around, it is surely a patent echo of Lear and the dead Cordelia. It’s a potent moment, and one that is subtly and tentatively built up, so that it becomes all the more moving and expressive, an appealing complement to Coughlan’s Lear: a final fling before he dies, leaving Norman (and effectively Madge) nothing. To 18-05-19

Roderic Dunnett


Home Reviews A-Z Reviews by affiliate