King Lear one night, Richard III the next, then a blacked-up turn as Othello to polish off the week's exertions - ageing actor Sir has a lot to reckon with. Ken Stott turns in a heartbreaking performance as this theatrical titan, whose vision of bringing Shakespeare to embattled wartime audiences is sending him potty. But his loyal dresser won't let him bow out. If Ronald Harwood's 1980 play had a motto, it would have to be 'the show must go on'. It's a luvvie comedy that paints a romantic picture of actors who sweat into their doublets as air raid sirens drown out soliliquies and bombs crash down in place of sound effects - except in Lear's blasted storm scene, when of course the B52s fall silent.
Sean Foley's revival embraces all the joy of Harwood's text, which is stuffed full of theatreland cliches and in-jokes for Shakespeare die-hards. Reece Shearsmith is a delight as Sir's loyal dresser Norman, fawning over his embroidered frocks and cajoling him into acting the part. He's agile, witty and persuasive as any Iago. Next to him, Stott is tragic and massive, greasepaint caked on his doleful face like a doberman who's got at a cream bun.
But it's still hard to believe that the acting giant he plays is so magnetic that all four of this play's other characters are hopelessly in love with him. We're expected to believe that a young female spear carrier is pathetically grateful - 'thank you, sir!' - for an unsolicited pat on the bum, while his wife (the majestic Harriet Thorpe) must put up with endless fat jokes. Foley's production plays their humiliations for laughs, adding some superfluous groping, with a persistent campy tone that undermines the play's drawn out, grim closing scenes.
It's not always clear why Foley's revived the play, without a bold vision to freshen up the musty drapes. But Reece Shearsmith and Ken Stott provide ample excuse - dusty it may be, but 'The Dresser' offers ample opportunity for its stars to shine.