The Dresser By Ronald Harwood
Dates and Venue 30 October – 15 November 2008 | Presentation House
Director Jennifer Morabito Set Design Alun Macanulty Costumes Win McIntosh Lighting Ron Precious Sound Chris Wolfe
Reviewer John Jane
Considered to be semi-autobiographical at the time of writing in 1980 (Mr. Harwood was once Sir Donald Wolfit's personal dresser), Ronald Harwood’s black comedy, The Dresser provides audiences with a rare peek backstage. Now better known for such award-winning screenplays as “The Pianist” and “Love in a Time of Cholera”, the playwright draws on his experience from both the bottom and the top of the theatre industry.
It’s London mid way through the WWII and persistent air raids are reeking nightly havoc; an aging actor-manager known only as “Sir” is, much like the Shakespearean company he leads, at the end of his tether. He has already played King Lear once too often and his nervous exhaustion has brought him perilously close to complete breakdown.
Once revered by audiences and still an object of some affection by the female cast and crew; he is now a victim of self-love and pathetic self grandiose. He still does, however, retain the devotion of Norman, the eponymous dresser, who perhaps has too much dedication for his own good.
For the hour prior to curtain time, Norman becomes surrogate wife, nurse-maid and gatekeeper to Sir, prompting his lines, stroking his ego and calming his nerves with hot tea. He must frequently accept, though not without the odd whit of ‘tit-for-tat’, Sir’s barbs and take it on the chin while dispensing his unorthodox brand of encouragement and doing whatever it takes to get his charge onto the stage. Much of the play’s melodrama is derived from whether Sir eventually makes it on cue to the stage floor.
Norman’s final remonstration at his employer’s demise is his utterance "What about me?" rendered as panic swiftly turns to a sense of betrayal when he realizes his dedication to service had never been appreciated.
In the role of Norman, Michael Morabito displays the effeminate nuances with such aplomb that he takes his performance to the very edge of camp.
Dave McIntosh also offers a riveting portrayal of an actor whose best performances are far behind him. He wavers between his obligations to take the stage once more and fearing his faltering strength will let him down.
Though essentially a two-man show, Jennifer Morabito takes care to amplify the smaller roles; particularly those by the female cast members: Madge (played with a quaint Scottish brogue by Maggie Kolodziej), “Her Ladyship” (Nancy Ebert) and Irene (Heidi Dorman).
Alun Macanulty’s apposite set and Win McIntosh’s appropriately austere costumes bring out the essence of repertory theatre struggles without sacrificing the intimacy typically associated with Presentation House productions.
This is a fine piece of theatre by a cast and crew who know what it’s about.
© 2008 John Jane