The Dresser, Duke of York's Theatre, London

Behind the scenes with Lear
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The Independent Culture

The stagestruck invariably fall in love at first sight with Ronald Harwood's backstage play The Dresser. And there is much to love. The pleasing symmetry of a fading actor-manager losing his marbles during a Second World War performance of King Lear; the affectionate satire; four expertly-drawn unrequited love affairs, all leading inexorably to Sir (a Donald Wolfit-type Shakespearean actor, here played by Julian Glover). And, of course, the ultimate love affair of the piece; Sir's with himself, captured in all its maddening, hilarious, sad and tawdry glory.

The stagestruck invariably fall in love at first sight with Ronald Harwood's backstage play The Dresser. And there is much to love. The pleasing symmetry of a fading actor-manager losing his marbles during a Second World War performance of King Lear; the affectionate satire; four expertly-drawn unrequited love affairs, all leading inexorably to Sir (a Donald Wolfit-type Shakespearean actor, here played by Julian Glover). And, of course, the ultimate love affair of the piece; Sir's with himself, captured in all its maddening, hilarious, sad and tawdry glory.

Perhaps most loveable of all, however, is that Harwood breaks the rule that subsequent plays of his own (such as Quartet, his lumpen saga of opera singers in a home) had firmly established: never write plays about the theatre.

He achieves this by taking the treacherous route between glib actor-bashing and thespian self-aggrandisement of the I've-climbed-the-mountain-that-is Lear variety. Harwood was once Donald Wolfit's dresser in real life, and has been to the bottom of his passion for the theatre, suffered its slings and arrows, and emerged strengthened rather than embittered.

Perhaps the same could be said of the play's director. Sir Peter Hall elicits lovingly detailed performances from two drastically contrasting actors. Nicholas Lyndhurst's Norman, the dresser of the title, is the more noteworthy in that it is the most surprising.

There he is on the programme cover, lips-to-lemon, eyes-a-rolling, for all the world a cardboard cut-out of camp. But in performance, the singular lack of musicality in his famously deadpan and nasal delivery finds a perfect home in Norman, Sir's devoted dresser of 16 years. Nipping at a quarter bottle of brandy, he is Cerberus at the gates of the dressing room, knowing what is best for Sir above even his wife. Any remnants of comedy have long turned sour, and it is this sourness that Norman fights to keep at bay with a show-must-go-on ethos made more onerous by the need for real Blitz spirit.

Julian Glover (a coruscating Lear at the Globe a few summers ago) plays the music of Sir's crack-up like a virtuoso. Great flashes of rage and pomp alternate with silent tears, bewilderment and fear. This intelligent actor extracts great enjoyment out of the flashes, mischievously employing his imposing baritone in the acting style of the day. The bleakness of his nervous exhaustion provides a chilling contrast.

Essentially a two-man show, Hall takes great care with the smaller parts, eliciting some insightful details, such as Liza Sadovy's spinster stage manager Madge - 20 years in love with Sir - who fights to repress girlish fluttering in the presence of the actor.

Simon Higlett's set slots together and trucks apart with all the satisfaction of a well-made wooden toy within the confines of this small West End stage, rolling us from Sir's dressing room into the wings and the forestage with all the necessary speed and ease of a great Shakespeare. The house lends not only its intimacy to the piece, but also an apposite grubbiness of setting.

The play does show its age in places. There is some clunky exposition to explain that it is unlucky to mention the Scottish play backstage - that's Macbeth to "civilians", as Her Ladyship (Annabel Leventon) refers to us. All of which goes to set up only a passably funny routine.

Lyndhurst's final cry of, "What about me?" is rendered as a screech of anguish, and it represents a part of theatrical folklore that is nigh on impossible to express cleanly and without bitterness: that it is an unforgiving profession to all but a few.

The clarity of Harwood's writing, the precision of Hall's production and the humane codependence created by Lyndhurst and Glover get the message over with delicious laughs and an impressive absence of rancour.

To 14 May (0870 060 6623)

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