The Dresser

‘The Dresser’ is a collection of evocative, unrequited love stories that are both stark and comical, as they reveal an in-depth look at the life of a fading theatrical superstar. It was written by Sir Ronald Harwood (born Horwitz) CBE FRSL, a South African-born British author, playwright and screenwriter. The storyline was said to have been inspired by Harwood’s own perceptive memories of his years working as a dresser for actor-manager, Sir Donald Wolfit.

Harwood also wrote ‘Quartet’ about an actors’ retirement home, and ‘The Pianist’, a controversial play for which he won the 2003 Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Harwood died last September aged 85.

This superbly acted play started its season with an annoying Covid limited audience of 50%, but it is now allowed full audience numbers. Coincidentally, in the script the leading character states his disagreement to injections – bad man.

This quality 2-hour Melville Theatre presentation can be seen at The Melville Theatre on Stock Road, just off the Canning Highway in Melville. Like so many other postponed plays, the curtains rise a week late at 8.00 pm on Thursday 8th, 9th and 10th, there is a Sunday matinée at 2.00 pm and again on Thursday 15th, Friday 16th and Saturday 17th.

The scene:           England towards the end of World War ll. In a shabby rural seaside theatre.

The Set designers:            Congratulations to Jacob Turner and Peter Bloor, for an accurate representation.

The set: Two-thirds of the stage is raised an extra 25 cms and forms the floor of the Star’s dressing room. The walls are fern green, with metre high teak wood wainscoting panelling. In the centre of the room is an impressive, cream and green Italian 3-seat sofa. To the side is an oak makeup mirror and table.

On the rear wall is a tea table. The room has a white door and an alcove wardrobe space for the star’s costumes. The wall adjoining the wings has been cut away revealing the rear of the theatre’s stage. The stage walls are old rustic style, red clay bricks. There are a couple of stage flats; a wind machine and a thunder sheet are there for effects. A large timpani is being used to announce King Lear’s arrival.

The intricate set construction was by Peter Bloor and Martin Dorman, with help from Barbara Lovell, Jason Pearce, Tomas Kinshela and Jacob Turner in the painting and decor.

Stage manager:                Tomas Kinshela and his ASM was Jason Pearce.

Lighting design:                was by Jacob Jensen. The actor’s dressing room had an even spread, with no dim patches. The muted wings lighting was perfect, but may I suggest that when King Lear’s curtains open and the Shakespearean play begins, that a bright light comes on from the supposed stage behind the flats?

Lighting operator:            Susan Lynch, great job.

Sound design:                   Jason Pearce’s air raid sounds operated by Barbara Lovell and Jacob Jensen were most realistic.

Smart programme and poster by Vanessa and Jacob Jensen.

Aging mentally, yet with plenty of physical drive, Sir (James Hagan) is a knighted actor / manager who runs a touring Shakespearean company; however, his troupe is beset with problems – mainly the Blitz and half his audience being in Europe fighting. ‘Sir’ has become exhausted as he struggles with his own mortality and is now highly reliant upon to his devoted personal assistant and dresser, Norman (Peter Neaves); who is himself struggling to keep his tyrannical theatrical hero performing each night.

As the selfless and dedicated production manager, Madge (Vee McGuire) tries to hold things together as the play is about to open in an hour, Sir’s young long-suffering wife, Her Ladyship (Kate Elder) arrives and announces that her husband was taken to hospital the previous night and is still there. 

The room door bursts open and a shambolic man staggers in. It is ‘Sir’. Her Ladyship and Madge agree that the show must be cancelled, but the overtly gay Dresser assures them that he will soon have Sir back to normal for his swansong (?) An aging friend, Geoffrey Thornton (Greg Ross), to whom Sir kindly gave the minor part of The Fool called to thank him. Norman looks at the pathetic couple, seeing in them a parallel with the parts they are about to perform. Next to call in is an angry young actor Oxenby (Andrew Brown) who has his own ideas about Sir and feels that his talents are wasted with the troupe.

The room empties and a beautiful, but gullible young actress, Irene (Esté Breytenbach) arrives. She is thrilled to be working with Sir and wishes to show her appreciation.

The curtain rises and King Lear begins. The Knights (Jason Pearce and Tomas Kinshela) and Albany (Jay Turner) take their places, but will Sir make his opening?

The costumes by Michelle Sharp are wonderful. From the baggy grey long-johns to the wartime fashionable dresses of Irene, then the striped jacket and apron of Norman to the opulent clothes of Her Ladyship. Fine work.

The director, Jacob Turner, ensured that even the extras were informed of the hidden facts behind this complex character study. Lecherous Sir had so many admirers – even adorers – like Madge who had been with him for 20 years yet was obviously frustrated by his lack of attention. Although the play is often thought of as a two-hander, it is the small asides and comments from the other cast members that give this play its huge depth. Very well directed. James giving an amazing performance as the miserable bully but who was truly a nervous insecure child inside. Then Peter, superb as Norman, carried off their co-dependent, love-hate relationship like a husband and wife, each looking for the controlling power.

Two of the year’s outstanding performances and yet the applause was strong but perhaps polite. Could it have been that we had just had our wettest day in decades and the audience would rather have been at home? Or could it have been that the actors were so good that the trauma caught everyone, leaving them winded?

There must be some nominations for major awards from this special play.