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The Dresser at Melville Theatre

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An actor’s life and backstage strife during WWII
The Dresser, Melville Theatre, play, performing arts, stage, actor, performance, Ronald Harwood, backstage
Norman (Peter Neaves, right) tolerates an outburst from Sir (James Hagan) in The Dresser.


Inspired by memories of his years working as a dresser for actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit, Ronald Harwood's evocative, perceptive and hilarious portrait of backstage life comes to Melville Theatre this July. Directed by Jacob Turner, The Dresser is set in England against the backdrop of World War II as a group of Shakespearean actors tour a seaside town and perform in a shabby provincial theatre.

The actor-manager, known as "Sir", struggles to cast his popular Shakespearean productions while the able-bodied men are away fighting. With his troupe beset with problems, he has become exhausted – and it's up to his devoted dresser Norman, struggling with his own mortality, and stage manager Madge to hold things together.

The Dresser, Melville Theatre, play, performing arts, stage, actor, performance, Ronald Harwood, backstage
Geoffrey Thornton – the Fool (Greg Ross) – bows down to Sir (James Hagan).


The Dresser scored playwright Ronald Harwood, also responsible for the screenplays Australia, Being Julia and Quartet, best play nominations at the 1982 Tony and Laurence Olivier Awards. He adapted it into a 1983 film, featuring Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay, and received five Academy Award nominations. Another adaptation, featuring Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins, made its debut in 2015.

"The Dresser follows a performance and the backstage conversations of Sir, the last of the dying breed of English actor-managers, as he struggles through King Lear with the aid of his dresser," Jacob said. "The action takes place in the main dressing room, wings, stage and backstage corridors of a provincial English theatre during an air raid. At its heart, the show is a love letter to theatre and the people who sacrifice so much to make it possible."

The Dresser, Melville Theatre, play, performing arts, stage, actor, performance, Ronald Harwood, backstage
Oxenby (Andrew Brown, left) and Norman (Peter Neaves) attempt to deal with Sir (James Hagan).


Jacob believes The Dresser has a multitude of challenges for it to be successful. "It needs to be cast perfectly – which I think we've done – and the technical elements need to blend just right," he said. "The cast have to work hard to make each individual moment perfectly truthful to really draw the audience into this incredible story."

Previously taking part in school productions and drama classes, Jacob has since appeared in several productions with Limelight, Stirling and Melville Theatres, including Sunset Boulevard, Pride and Prejudice, Two Weeks With The Queen, The Real Housewives of Perth and Veronica's Room. In 2018, he turned his hand to directing with Pygmalion.

The Dresser, Melville Theatre, play, performing arts, stage, actor, performance, Ronald Harwood, backstage
Dresser Norman (Peter Neaves, left) works on the costume for Sir (James Hagan) in The Dresser.

"I stumbled on to The Dresser completely by accident when I found the film starring Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins a few years ago," Jacob said. "I was completely absorbed and immediately wanted to bring the show to a local audience."

Vee McGuire plays the efficient and reliable stage manager Madge. "She can appear rather cold and business-like," she said. "Madge has been with the company almost 20 years, driven by her unrequited love and devotion to Sir. In some ways, she has a lot in common with Norman, although she often finds herself at odds with him.

The Dresser, Melville Theatre, play, performing arts, stage, actor, performance, Ronald Harwood, backstage
Vee McGuire, left, as Madge and Greg Ross as Geoffrey Thornton lend a hand backstage.

"Madge's emotions are always held in check but there are a number of subtle shifts as the play progresses, so the challenge is to show these different facets. The other challenge is fixing my hair into a 1940s style!"

Acting for the past four years, Vee has appeared at Garrick, Limelight, KADS, Hayman and Blak Yak Theatres, Irish Theatre Players and the State Theatre Centre in productions such as Henry V, The Chook House and Five Stubbies for a Sixpack. "I had seen the two film versions of The Dresser and loved the way all the characters were so driven with passion about their art," she said.

The Dresser, Melville Theatre, play, performing arts, stage, actor, performance, Ronald Harwood, backstage
Sir (James Hagan, centre) laments the actor's life with Her Ladyship (Kate Elder) and Madge (Vee McGuire).

"The depth of emotions just under the surface of the characters creates a tension that is palpable. As a lover of theatre, doing a play about the workings and characters in a Shakespearean theatre company in wartime England also fascinated me."

The Dresser plays at 8pm July 8, 9, 10, 15, 16 and 17 with a 2pm matinee July 11. Tickets are $23, $18 concession – book at www.TAZTix.com.au. Melville Theatre is at 393A Canning Highway (corner of Stock Road), Palmyra.

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Why? An excellent behind-the-scenes perspective on the theatre business with often humorous portrayals of certain theatre types.
When: 8pm July 8, 9, 10, 15, 16 and 17 with a 2pm matinee July 11
Where: Melville Theatre, 393A Canning Highway, Palmyra
Cost: $23, $18 concession
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by PerthKel on 12/07/2021
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