The Dresser

Original Production - 1980 to 1981

1st West End Revival - 2005

2nd West End Revival - 2016


The Dresser - Original West End Production 1980 to 1981

Previewed 26 April 1980, Opened 30 April 1980, Closed 17 January 1981 at the Queen's Theatre

The cast featured Freddie Jones as 'Sir' and Tom Courtenay as 'Norman' with Jane Wenham and Lockwood West. Directed by Michael Elliott with designs by Laurie Dennett. Note: Leo KcKern was originally scheduled to play the role of 'Sir', but he had to withdraw prior to production's pre-West End try out, at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre, on his doctor's advice, due to ill health.

This play was original written for Tom Courtenay who explains: "I can't pretend, and nor does Ronald Harwood, that this play is not about Donald Wolfit, but the important thing to remember is that it's not only about him. It's about a generation of actors who have gone forever. John Gielgud came to see us in Manchester and loved all the King Lear references, but afterwards he told us that when Sir Henry Irving played the played he used to make Cordelia die on a table so that he wouldn't have to stoop right down to the ground to pick up her body, so now we've got that in the play too. At first we were very worried that it would all be too much of an in-joke, comprehensible only to theatre people, and we've had to cut references to things like 'the returns' because nobody knew what they were. But young audiences in Manchester who could never have seen Wolfit still seemed to understand that it was a play about that tradition of tatty wartime tours when ail the young actors were away and Sir is left with what he calls 'a company of old men, cripples and nancy boys - Herr Hitler has made it all very difficult for Shakespeare'. On those tours the dresser was a much more prominent figure than he is in the modern theatre; Rachel Kempson came to see the play and said that Sir Michael Redgrave once had somebody just like Norman looking after him, the kind of dresser who always talked about 'we' as in 'we're feeling a little tired after the matinee' or 'we won't forget to finish our eyebrows, will we?' There's a terrible danger, though, in making Norman seem too camp, he's a whipping boy for Sir but he's also very tough, knows exactly how to get Sir back on the stage as Lear after his break-down. He too was once an actor, you see; he understudied in Outward Bound and then got sacked as Feste. But now there's been a little trouble in the Lear company, the Fool is being held by the police on charges which are never specified but remain all too obvious, so Norman and Sir have to brief the understudy - 'you must find what light you can' - Sir tells him. Then of course there's the air raid, which corresponds to the storm in Lear; in some ways it's a very complex play about reality and unreality."

The Dresser in London at the Queen's Theatre previewed from 26 April 1980, opened on 30 April 1980 and closed on 17 January 1981


The Dresser - 1st West End Revival 2005

Previewed 22 February 2005, Opened 28 February 2005, Closed 14 May 2005 at the Duke of York's Theatre in London

A major revival of Ronald Harwood's classic comedy-drama The Dresser in London starring Nicholas Lyndhurst and Julian Glover and directed by Sir Peter Hall.

The cast for this production of The Dresser in London stars Julian Glover as 'Sir' and Nicholas Lyndhurst as 'Norman' along with Annabel Leventon and Liza Sadovy. It is directed by Sir Peter Hall. This major new revival comes into London following a regional tour. Peter Hall's credits include Lenny about Lenny Bruce starring Eddie Izzard (Queen's Theatre 1999).

Nicholas Lyndhurst who plays the role of the dresser, 'Norman', is best known for his on-screen role of 'Rodney Trotter' in TV's Only Fools and Horses. He says: "My face on a poster might bring people to the theatre, but once they're there, it's my job to make them believe that I'm an alcoholic, homosexual northerner with mental-health problems. What I love is that I can see them saying at the beginning of the show, 'Ah, look, it's that nice boy from television,' and by the end, there's a silence you could drive a bus through."

"The writer Ronald Harwood started out as a dresser in Sir Donald Wolfit's touring company, and has written both a play and a biography of the great old overactor. Both the play and the movie starred Tom Courtenay in the title role (with Albert Finney on screen in 1983) and the miracle of Peter Hall's new production at the Duke of York's is that both Nicholas Lyndhurst in the title role and Julian Glover as 'Sir' manage to banish all memories of those earlier and I would have thought definitive performances... Apart from John Osborne's The Entertainer, this is the best play written since World War Two about the backstage life. Apart from Lyndhurst and Glover's magnificent double act, there are strong performances from Annabel Leventon as the wife Sir has never quite managed to marry, and Liza Sadovy as his lovelorn stage manager." The Daily Express

"Anyone who loves the theatre will love Ronald Harwood's glorious double portrait of an old actor-manager touring the provinces in the Second World War and of the devoted dresser who so faithfully serves him... Any production of The Dresser stands or falls with its two leading actors, and Hall has found a pair of performers who equal, and perhaps even surpass, the originals. Julian Glover, recently a distinguished Lear himself, hilariously nails the old actor laddie's booming braggadocio and rampant egotism, and the way his eyes light up when he hears there's a full house is a joy to behold... The marvellous Nicholas Lyndhurst, so fondly remembered as Rodney in Only Fool and Horses, is equally fine as Norman... Unfeasibly tall and gangly, he brings an extraordinary watchful stillness to the stage that provides a potent contrast to the blustering flurry of Sir, while his camp, conspiratorial performance suddenly sharpens into moments of vicious cruelty." The Daily Telegraph

"Peter Hall's beautifully observed production relishes the play on every level... Sir Peter's cast plays Sir's cast with evident enjoyment, bringing the petty jealousies of a worn-out company wittily to life... Glover is magnificent as Sir... he hams up Sir's curtain call deliciously, he also brings out the character's dedication to his work and his depth of feeling. Lyndhurst complements him perfectly as the faithful Dresser... Lyndhurst gives a masterly performance, precisely nuanced, dryly funny yet most moving." The Financial Times

"A marvellous tribute to the kind of vainglorious, even hammy actor who is nevertheless dedicated to his craft and his heritage... For honouring that unfashionable yet much-needed faith, while combining it with an often hilarious scepticism about the man behind the greasepaint, The Dresser merits the revival it's now getting from Peter Hall... It's wartime and Julian Glover's Sir - he's never given a name - is playing King Lear somewhere in the British sticks... Glover might almost be a reincarnation of the character: self-obsessed, erratic, envious, given to petulant tantrums, at times pretty infantile, yet larger-than-life even when he's behaving smaller-than-most... As for Lyndhurst, well, you'll be astounded if you still think of him as the dopey nerd in Only Fools and Horses. His performance as Norman, for many years dresser to this ungrateful, impossible bully, is beautifully observed all the way from his long, bony, pained face to knees that primly knit together when he's seated." The Times

The Dresser in London at the Duke of York's Theatre previewed from 22 February 2005, opened on 28 February 2005 and closed on 14 May 2005.


The Dresser - 2nd West End Revival 2016 to 2017

Previewed 5 October 2016, Opened 12 October 2016, Closed 14 January 2017 at the Duke of York's Theatre in London

A major revival of Ronald Harwood's back stage drama The Dresser in London starring Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith and directed by Sean Foley.

In a war-torn provincial theatre an ageing actor-manager, 'Sir', is struggling to keep a grip on his sanity and complete his two hundred and twenty-seventh performance of Shakespeare's King Lear. Thanks to the efforts of Hitler, all the able-bodied actors are in uniform and across the country bombs are destroying theatres, but the show must go on. Ensuring that it does is Norman, Sir's devoted dresser, who for sixteen years has been there to fix his wig, massage his ego, remind him of his opening lines and provide the sound effects in the storm scene.

The cast features Ken Stott as 'Sir' and Reece Shearsmith as 'Norman' with Selina Cadell, Simon Rouse and Harriet Thorpe. Directed by Sean Foley with designs by Michael Taylor.

Ronald Harwood's The Dresser is inspired by the memories of his years working as Donald Wolfit's dresser. The Dresser presents an evocative, perceptive and hilarious portrait of backstage life and is one of the most acclaimed dramas of the modern theatre. Originally seen in London's West End in 1980 when it starred Tom Courtenay and Freddie Jones, and a film in 1983 starring Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney.

When this production opened here at the Duke of York's Theatre in October 2016, Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph wrote: "I don't think we'll ever see Finney and Courtenay's double-act bettered. The big surprise of Foley's production is that those benchmark performances are, within a whisker, equalled. Ken Stott, such a masterful actor, never found wanting, is magnificent as Sir, but the revelation is Reece Shearsmith as Norman. The Yorkshireman, who achieved early success with The League of Gentlemen, finally makes a name for himself in his own right in the role Courtenay originated... A treat." Michael Billington in the Guardian held that thi "play is less a love letter to theatre than a reminder of the grottiness behind the greasepaint. Its great virtue is that it provides actors with two succulent lead roles. Ken Stott certainly captures Sir’s blend of physical disintegration and professional survival... Reece Shearsmith is adept at portraying the creepiness of life’s second fiddles, and his Norman is already spot-on: dapper, busy, waspish and seething with love-hate towards the actor on whom he totally depends." Fiona Mountford in the London Evening Standard noted how "Sean Foley’s somewhat lacklustre production doesn’t make a convincing case for a West End revival in 2016... Ken Stott is as good as he always is as Sir... Reece Shearsmith packs in a potent and toxic cocktail of emotions beneath Norman’s façade of pragmatic, camp cheerfulness... Harriet Thorpe fails to get the full measure of Her Ladyship... Even so, this remains an indestructibly watchable play." Ann Treneman in the Times highlighted that "Reece Shearsmith saves this revival of Ronald Harwood's 1980 play — which is both comedy and tragedy, more or less in equal measures — from being a parody of a parody... Sean Foley directs and it is his job to yank this play into something that absorbs us. He achieves this at times but it remains uneven and the supporting cast often just do not seem up to it. Still it is a theatrical treat in so many ways, what with Ken Stott's Sir playing Lear. The set, by Michael Taylor, is ingenious. It is Shearsmith who wins our hearts though." Neil Norman in the Daily Express commented that "Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay were a seemingly matchless double act as old-school actor Sir and his dresser Norman in the eponymous 1983 film. Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith are equally outstanding in this revival of Ronald Harwood's play... The motley crew of actors and stagehands retain a wobbly courage in their dictum 'The show must go on'. This is one show that deserves to go on." Ian Shuttleworth in the Financial Times said that "Sean Foley and his company engage fully with Ronald Harwood's increasingly minor-key musings on various forms of personal attachment and on art as both a fuel and a surrogate for life. However, they never quite cure us of the expectation - the desire, even - that we will be able to write almost all of it off with another laugh."

Ken Stott's recent West End stage credits include Lindsay Posner's revivals of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya with Anna Friel and Samuel West (Vaudeville Theatre 2012) and Arthur Miller's A View From The Bridge with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Duke of York's Theatre 2009) along with Thea Sharrock's London premiere of Gerald Sibleyras' comedy Heroes adapted by Tom Stoppard and co-starring Richard Griffiths and John Hurt (Wyndham's Theatre 2005). He also starred alongside Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney in opening first cast of Matthew Warchus' original staging of Yasmina Reza's comedy Art at the Wyndham''s Theatre in 1996. Reece Shearsmith's London credits include Jeremy Herrin's revival of Alan Ayckbourn's Absent Friends with Kara Tointon and Elizabeth Berrington (Harold Pinter Theatre 2012), Richard Eyre's staging of the musical Betty Blue Eyes with Sarah Lancashire (Novello Theatre 2011) and David Lan's revival of Shakespeare's As You Like It with Helen McCrory and Sienna Miller (Wyndham's Theatre 2005). He is probably still best known for being part of the comedy group League of Gentlemen (Drury Lane Theatre 2001). He also starred, alongside Mark Galiss and Steve Pemberton, in the closing last cast of Matthew Warchus' original staging of Yasmina Reza's comedy Art at the Whitehall Theatre (Trafalgar Studios) in 2003.

"Sean Foley's production, which uses rather too much jaunty music, lacks precision. But, as a very Scottish Sir, Ken Stott makes the part his own. A great talent blown, he can barely move. He is less frightening than his predecessors, but no less egotistical. In between heaving sobs, he dishes out orders with thick slices of ham. As his wiry companion, Reece Shearsmith swirls the teapot with the air of a man determined to get his way. His world falling apart, he skilfully reveals the dresser's many resentments, which seep out as he sips from the bottle concealed in his pocket. Ronald Harwood admires the doggedness of those who lived on the road - Sundays at Crewe station, damp digs and air raids - while never being sentimental. At the end of the play, the actor is obsessed by his legacy. The irony is that by writing this play, Harwood ensured that Donald Wolfit would be remembered for far longer than most of his colleagues." The Sunday Times

The Dresser in London at the Duke of York's Theatre previewed from 5 October 2016, opened on 12 October 2016 and closed on 14 January 2017.