The 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death is proving to be a big year for what is arguably his greatest tragedy, King Lear.

A fabulous new production starring Sir Antony Sher has just opened at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. Glenda Jackson will soon be giving her interpretation of the title role at London’s Old Vic.

Now comes a magnificent revival of one of the greatest of modern plays, Sir Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser, which is at once a celebration of Shakespeare’s genius as expressed in Lear and a reflection of its content in the relationship of the two principal characters.

Featuring tour de force performances by Ken Stott, of TV’s Rebus fame (among much else), and comedy star (and lots more) Reece Shearsmith, the production is at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, this week before taking up a West End berth (from October 5) at the Duke of York’s Theatre.

You are reading of its brilliance here first.

The success is particularly pleasing for Oxford audiences, perhaps, for direction is in the capable hands of Sean Foley who, with stage partner Hamish McColl in the Right Size, first came to fame in a series of comedy productions at the Pegasus Theatre.

Written in 1980 (and famously filmed with Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay), the play draws heavily on writer Harwood’s experience working for nearly five years in the 1950s as the dresser to the flamboyant actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit – a notorious ham - on his company’s never-ending tour of the nation’s provincial theatres, bringing the Bard to the masses.

The nobility of the cause is never in doubt, however, despite the make-do-and-mend nature of the operation.

This is emphasised in the play’s setting during the Second World War when only “cripples, old men and Nancy boys” – in the words of plain-speaking ‘Sir’ (Stott) - are available to the company.

One senses, though, that Sir is not especially bothered about this since he is the only star, even if his capacity to present himself on stage – so emotionally distraught do we find him – is seriously in doubt.

Preparing him for the role of the mad king, amid his self-pitying-outbursts of sobbing, is a gargantuan task for dresser Norman (Shearsmith), though one we recognise he has accomplished often before.

Ever cheerful in his non-stop patter, this endearingly camp figure – with whom Harwood presumably had little in common – serves as the Fool to a master who is Lear-like both on and off the stage.

That he has at his heart a steely coldness in his devoted service to his master is always clear from Shearsmith’s portrayal, certainly in Norman’s dealings with potential rivals. These include Sir’s wife ‘Her Ladyship’ (Harriet Thorpe), the loyal stage manager Madge (Selina Cadell) and newcomer Irene (Phoebe Sparrow) who is firmly advised to ditch any ambitions to sleep her way to success.

As for ‘cripples’, we meet the limping, acid-tongued Oxenby (Adam Jackson-Smith) and for ‘old men’ the self-effacing Thornton, comically caparisoned in bilious yellow and jester’s cap for his role as Lear’s Fool. ‘Nancies’ we only hear about in the shape of a company member now in the care of the constabulary for a ‘cottaging’ offence – a fate that befell so many in those pre-Wolfenden days.

Everyman  Theatre, until Saturday, 01242 572573, Duke of York’s Theatre from October 5,