Ronald Harwood’s play, inspired in part by his own experience as dresser to the actor-manager Donald Wolfit, creaks a little these days but this is still a very enjoyable revival.
‘Sir’ is the leading man in a touring company (‘next week, God willing, we will be in Eastbourne’), who, along with his ‘lady wife’, presents Shakespeare in a haphazard way to an audience who are probably as bored with the proceedings as those in the company (‘cripples, old men, and nancy boys’). In this version of the play Sir is portrayed by Ken Stott, and at first I thought he was a little miscast, but as the play progressed he grew into the role and by the end was really rather effective.
In the main role of Norman, the dresser, Reece Shearsmith is wonderfully waspish and camp as the man who has been responsible for the cheering up of his charge and the ‘washing of his foul underpants’ for some sixteen years. This man sees the lie of the land and realises that the game is up, and yet he still has to play-act just as much as those on stage. His timing is faultless and his acting cuts straight to the heart, whether making us laugh with his constant refrain of ‘I had a friend’, or touching us with his final scenes of loneliness and desperation.
Supporting roles go to Simon Rouse, as the doddery Thornton, who for years has soldiered on in the smallest of parts, but tonight has to play the Fool; Harriet Thorpe as Her Ladyship, now too old to care anything for her career or her sham marriage; and Selina Cadell as the quietly devoted but steely stage manager Madge.
I would like to give a nod to the set and staging too, Simon Higlett’s revolving backstage and wings, and Sean Foley’s direction, which is spot on, whether in the intimate two-handed scenes between Stott and Shearsmith, or the amusing opening of ‘King Lear’ (‘methinks I saw the King’) or the later storm, requiring all hands on deck. In fact, Lear is the perfect depiction of the backstage drama, too, with Norman as the Fool, who although ever present, finds he has ‘slipped out of sight’ when he reads Sir’s book dedication.