Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings


Paul Viles as Sir preparing for Lear, Richard Ham as Norman and Julie Lomas as Her Ladyship. Pictures: Aleks Olaf Lapczynski

The Dresser

Grange Playhouse


It’s been dark more than a year and has swallowed more than £60,000, but the Grange Playhouse is finally back in business, and back with a captivating piece of quality theatre.

Ronald Harwood’s play was inspired by his time as a dresser in the 1950s for Sir Donald Wolfit, renowned for Lear and, along with Olivier, the last of a long line of actor-managers, having formed his own company in 1937 when he could find no backing to tour his Hamlet from Stratford.

The play is set in a small regional theatre during the Second World War, with air raids and bombing a daily occurrence - Wolfit and his Shakespearean company, incidentally, performed in London throughout the Battle of Britain and continued throughout the war.

Sir, the actor manager, is famed, or at least thinks he is, for his Lear and his Richard III, but whether suffering from stress, mental illness or exhaustion or merely dementia, his grip on reality is fragile to say the least and is only there at all through the heroic and desperate efforts of his dresser, Norman. Sir has become the almost empty shell of the once over the top Thespian who played his Shakespearean roles at night, and, still acting, played the role of manager by day.

The remnants are still there, his fur collared coat, his demands, his control, ever more fragile, over his company, but with many of the best and youngest actors now in uniform he is left with just the old, unfit or unable, facing nightly German raids while theatres he has visited, or is yet to visit are being bombed into oblivion.

Sir is still the boss, and there are flashes of him reminding people of his authority, but they are no more than flashes and it is Norman who is doing the bossing and cajoling to ensure his charge goes on stage as, hopefully, King Lear.


Norman keeps a wary eye on Sir's wandering hands as stage-struck Irene, played by Lauren Brown, collects Sir's  triple crown for polishing

Hopefully being pertinent as Sir keeps asking which play it is tonight, and cannot remember either play or his opening lines, despite it being his 227th performance in the role, quoting instead from a host of other plays as he stumbles around the roles in his jumbled memory.

Sir has had . . . an episode, which has seen him hospitalised, but he has walked out and arrived back at the theatre visibly physically and certainly mentally worse for wear. Stage manager Madge wants to cancel, his partner, Her Ladyship, who just wants him to retire, doubts he is fit to appear.

Her Ladyship is a nickname alas. Sir is still married, a relationship long dead but never legally ended, so he and Her Ladyship are man and wife without either title or security which stirs some resentment on her part.

Meanwhile, with the night's performance in jeopardy Norman convinces everyone he can get Sir ready and on stage as Lear, something we discover is more based on his needs as much as his duty. Norman has nothing else, Sir is his life.

Richard Ham is simply superb, producing a compelling performance as Norman, camp, fiercely protective of Sir yet at times vulnerable, with a habit of telling of his own fears and failures through the device of relating them as those of a friend. He is a sad character with a life full of disappointment, with the final ignominy to come.

Matching him is Paul Viles as the helpless Sir, with a convincing mix of lucid moments and frightened ramblings as the once confident actor, great in his own mind, third rate in Her Ladyship’s, is brought to his knees by age, illness, stress, war, or perhaps all of them, who knows? Whatever the reason, he has become frightened, confused, racked by doubt, his mind struggling to function, hopelessly lost in the most familiar of surroundings.

Sir, has never been knighted, and her Ladyship has her own theories about that, but Sir does have a hatred of acting rival Arthur Palgrove, who has been made a real Sir. Wolfit, incidentally had a long standing and bitter dislike of the public school educated, well connected Sir John Gielgud, who, adding insult to injury, just happened to be knighted four years before he was.


David Stone as Geoffrey in his ill fitting costume - Mr Davenport Scott unfortunately being a much taller man - as the stand-in Fool

Julie Lomas provides a fine Ladyship, devoted wife in all but name by day and Cordelia to Sir’s Lear by night. We see concern, we see frustration and we see the anger of a woman who, after so many years as Her Ladyship, is still unmarried, we see a woman tired of a life on the road, living in theatrical digs, tired of cold food and cold rooms but, above all, we see love.

Then there is matter of fact Madge, played, matter of factly, by Stephanie Evans, Madge, with Sir for 20 years, keeps her emotions in check, hiding behind her job as stage manager.

David Stone gives us a Geoffrey who is an ineffectual, unassuming stand-in as the fool after Mr Davenport Scott’s unfortunate arrest and refusal of bail on charges relating to his homosexuality – this is the 1940s remember.

Then there is Carl Horton as the belligerent Mr Oxenby, a left winger with a limp and not so much a chip as a whole bag of spuds on his shoulder, an aspiring playwright disregarded and disliked by Sir, promoted to the role of Edmund only by the enforced reshuffle.

Finally, we have Irene, played by Lauren Brown, young, attractive, an aspiring, ambitious actress with a burning passion for the stage. She is infatuated by Sir, seeing him as an opportunity to further her career, and flattered by his attentions, not realising his interest in her is more practical than physical.

His interest is also a potential disruption to the, if not exactly smooth, established order, quickly snuffed out by the ever vigilant Norman.

Director Claire Armstrong Mills is also responsible for the clever set design with Sir’s dressing room, where most of the play takes place, dominating the stage with the corridor outside and wings of Sir’s production off to the side as we sit backstage hearing snatches of Lear on the imaginary stage.

In her directorial role she builds the underlying tension well. Will Sir go on? Will he get the right play? Will it be a triumph, however small, for Norman as well as Sir?

It is a play about love and friendships, about loyalty, about insecurity, at times very funny, at times sad and a tale well told through sensitive directing and beautiful acting from the entire cast.

A little prompting was needed on opening night but that hardly detracted from a fine production which will be all the better with first night now conquered. To 29-09-18

Roger Clarke


Grange failed a fire risk assessment in July last year, and not wishing to compromise the safety of cast or audience members closed for essential work to be carried out - at a cost of some £60,000. As a voluntary charity it has taken time to raise the money through grants, donations and fundraising, aided by volunteer and special rate labour. Apart from redecoration little can be seen of the work but beneath the surface the theatre has been completely rewired - a major task with theatre lighting -  while a new alarm system has been fitted and safety curtains and new fire doors installed making the theatre safe. More work - and fundraising - is planned from lighting in the car park to further improve the theatre and improve access and comfort for patrons.

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