Writer Sir Ronald Harwood has had to state that, although having served as a dresser to the great Sir Donald Wolfit between the years 1953 and 1958, neither of the characters of Sir or Norman in his play The Dresser are based on the late actor-manager or himself. Instead they are each “an amalgam of three or four men” which is very believable as tonight each have enough character and vigour to fill the roles of several persons let alone just themselves.

The charisma that follows Ken Stott, playing Sir, up the stairs to his dressing room is palpable; a boisterous display of showmanship and power on his way to his two hundred and twenty seventh performance as King Lear. But this facade breaks all too soon and we, the audience, are witness to the sheer vulnerability and anguish that Sir hides from everyone but his dresser, Norman. Norman, superbly performed by Reece Shearsmith, is a mess of intricacies; sparky and obstinate as Sir’s grounding anchor, he can be deliciously vicious out of loyalty to him.

Tonight we are offered an enthralling glimpse into the inner machinations of touring theatre. With bombs dropping outside, we watch relationships fester amongst the theatrical hierarchy. With the company’s shows playing to dwindling audiences and poor reviews the cast and crew are bitter and easily divided, especially now their actor lead is struggling with illness and prone to forgetting more than just his exits and entrances. Europe is at war and there is a looming and almost overbearing presence of the inevitable and the atmosphere is at times suffocating. But the action remains fast-paced and the comedy with it as Sean Foley’s direction brings out the real humour this show if capable of.

The cast play the stakes wonderfully, each of them utterly self-involved and desperate to climb the next rung of the ladder. Highlights include Phoebe Sparrow’s Irene, the young actor turned seductress in the name of career betterment as well as Simon Rouse who makes a touching but pathetically apathetic Fool to Sir’s King Lear. But tonight is understandably about the double act and they do not disappoint. Stott and Shearsmith, Sir and Norman, expertly tiptoe the fine lines between success and failure, master and servant, stability and insanity. Their presence is commanding, their discourse witty and relationship tender.

Sir Ronald Harwood’s “behind-the-scenes” vivid exploration of the duality of performance is given a gripping and heart-rending revival. For each of the dramas that treads the boards there are a hundred more behind closed doors.

The Dresser is playing the Duke of York’s Theatre until 14 January. For more information and tickets, see the Duke of York’s Theatre website.

Photo: Hugo Glendinning