After successful runs of Barefoot in the Park, A Christmas Carol, and not to toot one’s own horn too much, a packed out run of The Duchess of Malfi, Masque Theatre return with Ronald Harwood’s comedy, The Dresser.
Set during the second world war, Sir (Adrian Wyman) and his motley crew of actors, assembled from what was left of the men not packed off to war, are to present “King Lear” to an audience somewhere in the “provinces”. By his side, the ever faithful Norman (Stewart Magrath), his dresser and assistant, urges the ailing performer to go on, while Her Ladyship (Di Wyman) is desperate for Sir to finally call it quits.
Director Clare Brittain has pulled together the most astounding cast in what is easily one of best productions I’ve seen from Masque in the 2 years I’ve been attending their shows.
Adrian Wyman is simply brilliant as Sir – his comic timing and mastery of the pendulum like moods of the aging actor-manager are a wonder to behold. There’s a mischievous glint in his eye, a hark back to the character’s earlier star qualities perhaps, that Wyman manages to portray while still capturing the essence of a weary man facing the end of all he knows. Stewart Magrath as Norman delivers a stunning performance; snarky and sarcastic, but with an underlying sense of genuine affection, he is patronising and two-faced but you’re rooting for him still. He’s barely off the stage, and barely off his feet, for the whole show, delivering his snide remarks with perfect timing.
Di Wyman gives another superb performance as Her Ladyship – curt as only a woman in the 1940s could be, frustrated by her own lack of success, but never downtrodden. Her facial expressions while darning tights during the “interval” were priceless, and she was an utter delight to watch. Maggie Holland as Madge not only looks the part in Pam Mann’s handmade costume, but has the tenacity and temperament of every good stage manager I’ve ever met, and allowed a more gentle side to come through with her interactions with Sir.
Completing the cast are Mark Mortimer as Oxenby, who took on the challenge of creating a very distinct character is very few lines and absolutely succeeded, Ella Broughton as Irene who was every bit the ambitious ingenue desperately seeking any way in to her dream career (and her argument with Norman proved incredibly emotional), and Owen Warr as Geoffrey was beautifully understated as he gently reminded the audience of the real war going on outside their dressing room when he spoke sadly about his military son.
Mortimer’s set design was effective, with the dressing room and wings each taking up half of the Playhouse’s tiny stage – the “stage” in the play itself being off-stage worked amazingly, and the pre-recorded voices (of Kevin Pinks, Kevin Evans and Lou Chawner) were nicely timed and worked well with the cast talking over them. Lighting too, at the hands of Phil Welsh, was atmospheric, and very reminiscent of waiting backstage.
The Dresser was full of humour; it’s a play I’ve read the script for, and I even saw Act 2 a few weeks back while shooting the rehearsal photos, so I didn’t expect to find it as freshly funny as I did – the little looks and asides from Magrath truly brought the character of Norman to life, while Wyman’s Sir had that charisma and charm by the bucketload that he was able to turn on whilst also being intensely vulnerable. The script itself is perhaps a little on the niche side – how many of the jokes and references you’d get if you’re not “in” to theatre I’m not sure – but is still a wonderfully entertaining piece.
The Dresser was funny, sad, beautifully designed with excellent performances. I’m not sure you can ask any more of a play than that. ****/5
Photos by Vicki Holland. Performance 17 May 2019, The Playhouse Theatre, Northampton