RONALD Harwood was inspired by his memories of working for Donald Wolfitt to write The Dresser - and what memories they must have been.

It's 1941 and the bombs are falling on war-torn Britain. There's quite a few bombs going off backstage too where there is widespread panic that 'Sir', due on in the title role of King Lear, has suffered some kind of breakdown.

When he does turn up, it is immediately clear that all is not well. While his wife and stage manager insist the show is cancelled, Sir's dresser, Norman, won't countenance such a thing.

Tom Courtenay created the role of Norman in 1980 and left some sizeable shoes to fill - but Nicholas Lyndhurst more than comfortably fits them.

His lean, angular Norman is a study of repressed emotion. Effeminate, bitchy, vicious - all these too but also protective of his master who, we eventually learn, he loves and hates in equal measure.

Lyndhurst's playing opposite Julian Glover, no stranger to the Malvern stage. Glover is an actor many will recognise from big screen appearances but his stage pedigree is long and illustrious and this is another beautiful portrayal.

He brings pathos and humour to the monstrously egotistical Sir, teetering on the edge of a breakdown.

As with all great plays, this one is shot through with rich humour and great tragedy. Even as you roar with mirth, inside you are shaking your head at the desperate sadness of it all.

The biggest problem of the night came from the audience, which appeared to have turned out en masse in coughing mode par excellence - the first 10/15 minutes were practically inaudible despite the actors' best efforts.

I can only assume these bouts can only have exhausted them for I felt the applause for the leads at the end, although warm, was not nearly enough. I wanted to get up and cheer.

Juliette Kemp

The Dresser runs in the Festival Theatre, Malvern until Saturday. Check for seats on 01684 892277.