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UK 1983
Directed by
Peter Yates
113 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

The Dresser

If you like plays about theatre life The Dresser will be a sure-fire treat. The combination of Ronald Harwood's screen adaptation of his own marvellous 1981 Broadway play, scenery-chewing performances by Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay, fine production design and deft direction by Peter Yates makes for a very satisfying experience.

Set during WWII, Finney plays a once-lauded Shakespearean actor touring the provincial English circuit with rag-tag company of, as he puts it, “old men, cripples and nancy boys''.  Worn out and on the verge of a nervous breakdown he is only kept together by his devoted dresser, Norman (Tom Courtenay), a homosexual with a drinking problem. But as “Sir” prepares to play Lear the distinction between actor and character is hard to maintain.

Bar a couple of well-realized exterior scenes most of the film is set backstage and is an intense colloquy between Norman and Sir, who are the 'real' and more pathetic equivalents to Lear and his Fool, with a few minor characters such as Madge (Eileen Atkins), the stage manager, sticking their heads in on occasion to shift the pace.Yates handles the confined setting well with only a break in continuity occurring around the three-quarter mark with an incongruous scene in which a young aspiring actress (Cathryn Harrison) throws herself at Sir. This breaks the tone and the film struggles to recover it in the remaining running time.  

It is, however, the high-flying performances that carry the day. Finney gives a superb performance as the weary thesp crumbling under the burden of running his own repertory company and whose self-perception is merging with the characters he has pretended to be for so long. Courtenay, who played the role on Broadway. plays Norman as a florid queen - devoted to his Sir but bitchy to the rest of the company. The two are a classic case of co-dependency although ultimately it is the dresser's point of view that Harwood and Yates leaves us with.

FYI:   Ronnie Harwood worked as a dresser for, and wrote a popular biography of, Donald Wolfit, who, like Sir, spent many years playing the provinces, eventually winning fame and a knighthood for playing King Lear.




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