The Dresser

Ronald Harwood
Theatre Royal Bath Productions and Everyman Theatre Cheltenham
Richmond Theatre

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Julian Clary as Norman, Matthew Kelly as Sir, Emma Amos as Her Ladyship in The Dresser Credit: Alastair Muir
Julian Clary as Norman, Matthew Kelly as Sir in The Dresser Credit: Alastair Muir
Julian Clary as Norman, Matthew Kelly as Sir in The Dresser Credit: Alastair Muir
Julian Clary as Norman, Matthew Kelly as Sir in The Dresser Credit: Alastair Muir
Julian Clary as Norman in The Dresser Credit: Alastair Muir
Pip Donaghy as Geoffrey Thornton, Natali Servat as Irene, Julian Clary as Norman, Matthew Kelly as Sir, and Rebecca Charles as Madge in The Dresser Credit: Alastair Muir
Julian Clary as Norman, Matthew Kelly as Sir in The Dresser Credit: Alastair Muir
Natali Servat as Irene, Julian Clary as Norman, Emma Amos as Her Ladyship and Rebecca Charles as Madge in The Dresser Credit: Alastair Muir
Natali Servat as Irene and Matthew Kelly as Sir in The Dresser Credit: Alastair Muir

A nostalgic look back at theatre as it was, repertory companies performing an incredible feat of King Lear one night, Othello the next, Richard III the next, memory put to the test. No wonder actor-manager of a motley group of travelling players Sir (Matthew Kelly), in the twilight of his career, is having a nervous breakdown. He can’t remember his opening lines nor which role he is playing this evening. He is not well. His dresser Norman (Julian Clary) must cajole and prompt and encourage. Not an easy task. And keep all others at bay.

It is often the dedicated peripheral team that keeps the show on the road for very little money, thanks or credit. Ronald Harwood (1934–2020) drew on his five years as dresser to the imperious Donald Wolfit in the fifties. You can’t get closer to the egotistical, self-absorbed top dog than by being his dresser. What amazing raw material—in the midst of theatre’s illusory magic, superstitions (the Scottish play ritual), and at the heart of its tribulations. He has written a wonderful sparring match for the two leads in which Norman quietly holds all the cards.

Harwood cleverly set it in 1942 during bombing raids and sirens, the point being nothing can ever stop the show. Except our present “exceptional” circumstances did. Those were the days, eh… Theatre as a tragicomic morale booster, though tonight there’s more comedy than tragedy in the air with Clary as Dresser Norman. And the audience laps it up, this double act of mollycoddled actor and his lowly dresser of sixteen years, who knows all his master’s lines, has washed his stinky underwear after the show, pushed him physically on to the stage, given him his curtain call lines (which the audience applauds) from behind the curtain. And with the rest of the backstage crew done King Lear’s sound effects only to have Sir complain, “where was the storm?”

First performed in 1980 with Freddie Jones and Tom Courtney; in 1983, there was a Peter Yates film with Albert Finney and Courtney again; and in 2015, Richard Eyre’s TV production had Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen. Not hard acts to follow then… Each brought unique dramatic variations, tonality and personality to the table, as you can imagine. Clary gives an unostentatious, nuanced performance, a long-suffering emollient gentle soul much put upon, but he can more than hold his own. Indeed, where would Sir and the rest of them be without him as he jealously controls his domain, Sir’s dressing room?

Kelly’s big baby shaking at the prospect of one more performance, his 227th as Lear, is a marvellous foil as Sir, and Clary bounces off him with impeccable comic timing. Sir is so confused—a mini-stroke probably—that he blacks up for Othello—remember Laurence Olivier’s blackface, Jamaican accented, eye-rolling Moor?—this is a period piece, so I’ll say no more. He rants and raves, makes digs at doctors and critics, his ego the only thing keeping him going.

Visitors to the guarded realm are given short shrift: Sir’s wife, though still a fine woman, past her prime as Cordelia and far too heavy for him to carry; stage manager Madge, twenty years in harness, another long-sufferer in love with the monster (he says he is leaving her his cuttings book); and the young general dogsbody and “company mattress” Irene who hopes to rise via Sir’s casting couch. Sir is past it.

But he gets through his final performance. The National Anthem is played. No one stands up, as they did in days of old, though many in the audience would remember that quaint custom I’m sure. John Leonard’s sound effects are spot on, “With hey, ho, the wind and the rain…” from Twelfth Night brings the two and a half hour show to a dying close.

Sir is done. Forty years an actor. What a way to go. Enviable even. Poor Norman—a poignant scene alone played to perfection—discovers that he is not mentioned in Sir’s notebook memoirs. Would you add your name to the barely begun manuscript? An unsung hero. Subtly performed—Clary’s face a picture. A sad survivor; they are all just surviving. Harwood has rectified the omission.

Emma Amos as Her Ladyship, Rebecca Charles as Madge, Natali Servat as Irene, Pip Donaghy as Geoffrey Thornton, Samuel Holmes as Mr Oxenby, Robert Shaw Cameron as Kent, Peter Yapp as Gloucester, Stephen Cavanagh as Albany, with Claire Jeater and Michaela Bennison in the ensemble, bring up the rear in Terry Johnson’s affectionate production.

Tim Shortall’s set is excellent with its passageway and stairs to the side outside the cluttered dressing room, so we see the cast coming to listen at the door before they enter. And the backstage area is a veritable devil’s cauldron. The blood, sweat and tears of touring, everyone supposedly pulling together, though some are too hoity-toity—Mr Oxenby, I’m looking at you. And what happens to the Fool in Lear, the actor playing him wants to know. Don't we all.

The Dresser continues its tour of the regions in 2022 to Malvern Festival Theatre; Oxford Playhouse; Marlowe Theatre Canterbury; Alhambra Theatre, Bradford; King’s Theatre Edinburgh. If tonight’s audience is a yardstick it will do very nicely. Though the coughing throughout (and not all in masks) did blot out some of the lines.

Reviewer: Vera Liber