I knew little about this play before I went … I thought I’d seen some blurbles in the Evening Standard ages ago (back when it opened) but they had mostly faded into dim memory. Ah yes, the show about the guy who helps an actor dress up before shows … why, certainly I’ll go at the bargain price I was being offered a ticket for. I was actually unsure if I was going to see someone who was a costume designer or a wardrobe mistress or what, exactly, and just what the arc of the story was going to be. Frankly, it was the ideal situation for me, to walk into a theater having no idea what would happen on stage but feeling confident I was going to have one of those lovely experiences that I’ve come to expect thanks to living in the world capitol of English language theater.
Plot summary: it’s World War II, and bombing is going on. We’re in the dressing room of a famous actor (Ken Stott), who’s possibly not very good, and the man who helps him get ready to go on stage (Reece Shearsmith) is worried about whether or not “sir” is going to make the show tonight. He’s never missed a performance before, but something about all of the bombing seems to have unhinged “sir,” whom his dresser, Duncan, most recently saw wandering a market taking his clothes off and babbling. Duncan’s concerns seem well founded, and we sit with him as he nervously picks his way across Sir’s dressing room, talking with Sir’s partner (Harriet Thorpe) about Sir’s mental health, and generally setting us nicely for the big arrival of The Man Himself.
A lot of this play should be about the relationship of Sir and Duncan, but it’s actually more about the interaction of all of the personalities in a touring company, as we see when the long suffering (yet apparently devoted) stage manager appears – Duncan becomes all confidence, protecting Sir from the humiliation of a cancellation – and then again when a young, manipulative actress attempts to weasel her way into Sir’s dressing room (Normal threatens her with violence). Its all nicely balanced with the actual performance at the center of the play – a Noises Off romp through King Lear, with the backstage shenanigans front and center.
While seeing Duncan disintegrate in parallel with Sir may be what this show is supposed to be about, my enjoyment was most greatly because of the complex interleaving of this play with the text and characterization of Lear. To me, Lear is the the embodiment on many levels of an actual, inevitable mental and physical collapse of older actors, who may get decades on stage but will still eventually struggle to carry on doing what they love when their bodies and minds decide they can do no more. Semi-fictionally, this was wonderfully captured in My Perfect Mind, about an actor struggling to recuperate after a stroke had while in rehearsal for Lear: more meatily, however, this struggle for an actor to keep himself together was quite viscerally brought home two years ago when Brian Blessed had a physical collapse while playing the role, a trauma nearly immediately followed by a production where another actor failed to get his head wrapped around the hard work of dialogue memorization. Macbeth may be the unlucky play, but as a role that attracts older actors, Lear is now, to me, a role far more likely to see on stage tragedy. And seeing Sir struggle to remember his first line … indeed, to even remember which role he was about to play … was the truth of life as an actor being told on stage. It was heartbreakingly real, and a pleasure to watch.
It’s all for the best, then, that so much of this play ultimately has comedy at its heart; it makes for a brisk, exciting evening despite its 130 minute running time. It’s only on through this weekend, but I do recommend a watch; I for one will probalby try to find a way to see the BBC version with Sir Ian. Either way, it’s a treat.
(This review is for a performance that took place on January 5th, 2017. It continues through January 14th.)