Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Performing in The Dresser as Norman

The video above is one of five rehearsed readings of Ronald Harwood's famous play and film, The Dresser I put on Youtube today. It is one of my favourite roles I have had the privilege to play over the years. This opportunity came in 1990 when I was a student at Nottingham Trent University and was looking for a professional placement as part of my degree course. I lacked the confidence and knowledge of how to get myself placed temporarily with a professional theatre company so I auditioned and won the role of Norman (the dresser) at the Robin Hood Theatre in Averham near Newark.


It was a very big part to take on as the play lasts about two hours and Norman is on stage all but ten minutes of that time. I rehearsed at the Averham venue twice a week and practised the lines and staging in any other time I had spare in my degree course. I seem to recall that I was involved in two other University productions at the time in one way or another!! Where did I get the energy?

Me when I was a performance arts student

Various people at the theatre (it is way out in the sticks) ferried me from a remote train station to the theatre and a man called David Nightingale took me home to West Bridgford most nights as well as my girlfriend Ann. Ann seemed to know the lines better than I did at times! I didn't know any of the team at the Robin Hood Theatre but they were very welcoming to this young arts student and took me under their wing. Margot Anderson directed and coached me in speech modulation for my often long speeches as Norman. She helped me to flesh the character out with a variety of vocal tones in the speeches and made what I had to say, touching and comic alike by altering my vocal inflections and making me aware of how I was coming across to an audience. In a way I have her and Brian Bonner (who played Sir) to thank in making my interpretation of the part a success and praised in the press.

Newark Advertiser

'Worthy of an Oscar

If there were Oscars for amateur actors, Philip Lowe would surely get one for his performance in the title role of Ronald Harwood's The Dresser at Averham until tomorrow.

It is a portrayal that runs the gamut of emotions, from prissy to pedantic to supportive and loving. Lowe is on stage for all but a few moments and sustains the role magnificently. He manages to attract and hold the attention without dominating the action, flitting hither and thither, fussing over his master and protecting him from unwanted intrusions, especially, one suspects, of reality.

Harwood was dresser to Balderton born actor manager Sir Donald Wolfit for nearly five years and one may suppose many of the incidents in the play are drawn from this experience.

Actor managers had to be tough to survive and Brian Bonner as the character known only as Sir reveals a man whose strength is draining away.

He has been taking Shakespeare to the masses for 40 years. It is now 1942 and we glimpse the backstage drama at a tatty provincial theatre during the Blitz.

The core of the play is the interplay, almost a battle of wills, between Norman and Sir, both in their different ways trying to hold back the inevitable final curtain.

The excellent supporting cast includes June Cresswell as Sir's bossy consort: June Hornby as his devoted stage manager; Amanda Rayns as a young aspiring actress and Bill Midwinter and Werner Fraenzel as a couple of has beens. Director Margot Anderson makes everything run smoothly. John Kitchen's set is superb. '

I remember during the performances that many of my student friends came all the way out to this remote theatre to see me perform and I remember that pleasure/pain feeling of getting on stage and saying my first line and knowing that for two hours there was no going back!

Some of my fave bits of acting were the verbal tussle with Irene the young actress; the scene where Sir blacks up as Othello; the frantic storm scene and the front cloth scene where Norman nervously addresses the audience and gets mixed up with his declarations. A superb show to be in.

If you haven't seen a stage version of this play the film is very worthwhile watching:


'Peter Yates' film adaptation of Ronald Harwood's play set during the Second World War centres on two men who have given their lives to the theatre. A once famous, Shakespearian actor (Albert Finney), who demands to only be called 'Sir', presides over an acting company who are exempt from military service due to age or health. Tom Courtenay plays his dresser, camp and nagging, but the only one who can communicate with 'Sir' (who is struggling with demons from his past and descending into senility) and manages to keep him together; helping with his lines, listening to his worries and reassuring him about his talent. Both men rely on each other and the play 'Sir' has put on, 'King Lear', seems to echo what is going on backstage. The film received 4 Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actor (both Finney and Courteney) and Adapted Screenplay.'


Christopher Frost said...

I vaguely seeing the film some years ago on TV. Especially remember the scene at the railway station Where Finney's character raises his cane and shouts 'Stop that train'.

Phil said...

That's right Christopher. I love that scene! That's one bit that doesn't appear in the play but a great ad on to show something of the life these travelling players during the war. They would travel on a Sunday often in cold and damp situations to the next town or city, sometimes to find that the theatre had been blown to bits.

Karen said...

Very enjoyable, Phil. I can remember seeing the Albert Finney film many years ago, & I'm now tempted to see if I can locate a cheap version online.

Phil said...

Thankyou Karen, you can click on the amazon link I've provided and get cheap copy through them. I also get a small commission so you will be helping me too. Phil xx

Karen said...

Ordered via your link.xx