The Dresser

Feb 16 2022 | By More

★★★☆☆      Sterling performances

King’s Theatre: Tues 15 – Sat 19 Feb 2022
Review by Hugh Simpson

That The Dressera play dealing with that old cliché that ‘the show must go on’ should lose one of its two stars on opening night in Edinburgh is oddly fitting, if unfortunate.

Despite such a handicap, the Theatre Royal Bath and Everyman Cheltenham’s touring version of Ronald Harwood’s play, which is at the King’s until Saturday, remains a solid touring production.

Emma Amos, Matthew Kelly and Julian Clary. Pic: Alastair Muir

Loosely inspired by Harwood’s time as dresser to Donald Wolfit, the play deals with ‘Sir’, one of the last of the actor-managers, whose troupe is performing Shakespeare around the lesser-trodden byways of theatre as the Second World War bombs fall around them.

Norman, the long-suffering dresser, has to help Sir prepare for his 227th performance as Lear, even though the veteran actor seems less than fit either physically or mentally.

There was a great deal of scope for disappointment when Julian Clary, one of the two above-the-title stars, had to drop out through illness, but understudy Samuel Holmes steps into the role of Norman with such skill that no-one coming in off the street would guess he was a last-minute replacement.

finicky, hangdog disappointment

Embodying all of the finicky, hangdog disappointment of the fiercely loyal and perpetually undervalued dresser, Holmes turns in a thoroughly impressive performance.

Matthew Kelly’s Sir is a wonderful contrast to Holmes, with his raging egotism and confusion both suitably larger than life. At once monstrously selfish and oddly sympathetic, it is a compelling performance.

Matthew Kelly with Julian Clary. Pic: Alastair Muir

It is now forty-two years since the play was first staged, which means that it is farther away in time than its wartime setting was in 1980. This does make for some awkwardness, with many elements starting to seem a little dated.

In what is essentially a two-hander with the others playing a more supporting role, Sir’s long-term romantic partner Her Ladyship and devoted stage manager Madge come off particularly badly. The characters rarely rise above the cardboard, although Emma Amos and Rebecca Charles strive to give them life, with Amos particularly strong.

touchingly humorous

Pip Donaghy’s is touchingly humorous in his gratitude as a veteran actor given a belated starring role, while the other cast members try hard to give extra dimensions to what are often little more than ciphers.

Many of the attitudes on display – the casual homophobia, the misogyny of entitled, powerful men – are still frighteningly relevant, but would surely be treated differently now. The same is even more true of the ‘gag’ where Sir, unaware of what play he is to perform, starts putting on blackface for Othello.

Pip Donaghy. Pic: Alastair Muir

Harwood’s refusal to sit in judgement on his characters is praiseworthy, but leads to an atmosphere that is ultimately unsatisfactory. The whole way that mental collapse is treated also seems troubling now, with the subject sometimes treated tragically, but often as the cause of humour.

Unsure of which angle to stress, the production ends up being not particularly funny or affecting. This is undoubtedly largely down to the enforced cast changes, but is also due to the material, which relies as much on monologue as on dialogue and drags noticeably in the second half.

unobtrusive and sympathetic

Terry Johnson’s direction does much to smooth over the disjointed feeling, being unobtrusive and sympathetic to the cast. Tim Shortall’s wonderfully versatile set and Ben Ormerod’s lighting help make the changes from Sir’s dressing-room to backstage elegant and expressive.

The Dresser seems to have reached that difficult age – old enough to become a period piece in itself, yet not so old that it takes on the patina of charm. Buoyed up by two strong performances – Kelly’s thoroughly barnstorming, Holmes’s better than anyone has any right to expect – this is, however, a reliably entertaining production.

Running time 2 hours 20 minutes including one interval
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street, EH3 9LQ
Tuesday 15 – Saturday 19 February 2022
Evenings at 7.30 pm; Matinees Wed, Thu and Sat at 2.30 pm
Information and tickets: Book here.

Julian Clary, Matthew Kelly and Rebecca Charles. Pic: Alastair Muir


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