Time hasn’t been particularly kind to Ronald Harwood’s 1980 play “The Dresser,” but chances are you won’t notice when stars Julian Glover and, especially, Nicholas Lyndhurst are center-stage. The third major West End production in six weeks to anatomize a life in the theater (following “Acorn Antiques” and David Mamet’s “A Life In the Theater”), “The Dresser” is easily the juiciest of the trio, and Peter Hall’s production is sufficiently diverting that few will mind if Harwood’s play is, to take a leaf from its title, all dressed up with virtually nowhere to go.
It’s also a vehicle for one of those career-transforming perfs, in this case from Lyndhurst as Norman, the dresser of the title, that makes you view an established performer in an altogether new light. Much like fellow funnyman Lee Evans this time last year in Beckett’s “Endgame,” U.K. TV name Lyndhurst (“Only Fools and Horses”) turns out to have real interpretive muscle. For auds whose one previous exposure to the part of Norman was Tom Courtenay’s turn on screen and stage, Lyndhurst is something else again, sharpening the edges of a role — and play — that now seems fairly sentimentally, even crudely conceived.
The material is best known from Peter Yates’ Oscar-nommed 1983 movie, which paired Courtenay with Albert Finney as the Shakespearean actor, known simply as Sir, upon whom Norman dotes. The twist this time around is the undertow of anger and resentment brought to the role by Lyndhurst, whose keenly judged perf extends well beyond Courtenay’s baleful feyness onstage.
Resembling a pursed-lipped basset hound, Lyndhurst has height on his side: There’s something immediately moving about the fastidiousness this Norman brings to serving a Sir (Julian Glover) who is his physical equal, even if Sir’s ego occupies a capacious landscape all its own.
Having spent 16 years getting Sir on and off stage and in and out of costume, Norman must see to it that this supreme Shakespearean (Othello one night, Shylock the next) gets through his imminent thespian assignment as King Lear. Not helping matters are the winds of war raging around the provincial theater where this mock-grandiose assemblage of thesps has turned up.
That retinue includes Sir’s wife, known as Her Ladyship (Annabel Leventon), who some time ago passed the point of being an appropriate Cordelia; an unctuous young upstart, Mr. Oxenby (Paul Ansdell), who ruffles Sir’s feathers; and Irene (Anna Lauren), the all-too-admiring ingenue whose compliments spur Sir on, leading to his thoroughgoing investigation of her legs.
Giving Norman some competition in the attentiveness department is the scarcely less loyal stage manager, Madge, beautifully played by Liza Sadovy as one of those people resigned to a life of unhappiness within a profession at which she has nonetheless done well.
And yet, the essence of “The Dresser” is the two-hander at its rather borrowed heart: the give-and-take between Sir and Norman, as it echoes and also revises the tenderness and tears felt between Lear and his Fool.
While air raids beyond the dressing room door threaten to plunge a wartime country into blackness, Harwood writes from the white heat of a theater enthusiast in lifelong thrall to the stage. “I hate the cinema; I believe in living things,” intones Sir, sounding every bit his playwright, at which moments “The Dresser” delivers its own fierce paean to the boards without needing Shakespeare’s tragedy to steer it along.
For much of the time, however, the play is alternately as hammy and camp as its two central characters in outline. But both stars honor the material by putting flesh on some decidedly frail bones. Glover could tone down the teariness at the start, as Sir sends his colleagues into a dither as to whether their leading man will be able to make his 227th performance as Lear. (Ominously, he’s having trouble remembering his opening line.)
But having actually played Lear at Shakespeare’s Globe in the summer of 2001, the actor gets better as the mad monarch consumes what’s left of Sir’s wayward wits. Glover also can be rudely, wickedly funny, whether bitching about his cohorts in a way that belies Sir’s grandeur or admitting his own reasons for arguing for wartime rations: so that Cordelia won’t be too heavy for him to carry.
His hands folded, standing ramrod-straight, Lyndhurst’s Norman at first resembles the loyal sidekick whose function is to go unnoticed. So it’s with redoubled finesse that Norman grows into an infinitely complicated mixture of fusspot, shrink and bodyguard, the unacknowledged lover and the thwarted mistress. At one point, Paul Pyant’s typically piquant lighting places Sir in the vainglorious spotlight, his trusty sidekick glimpsed half in shadow, at once loyal and impatient.
And sure enough, it isn’t long after that Norman himself seizes center-stage, his ostensibly mild demeanor by now cracked wide open. “The Dresser” may depend more than it has any right to on such outbursts as Lear’s celebrated “howl, howl, howl,” but all it takes is one meltdown from Lyndhurst to locate this play’s true howl — deep within the psyche of the prim and patient Norman, who, with no ovations whatsoever, has devoted his life to the camouflage of pain.