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The Dresser at Richmond Theatre | Review

To write a review of Ronald Harwood’s play The Dresser is fraught with danger as Harwood gets his counterattack in first in the play with Sir, one of the main characters declaiming “Hate the critics? I have nothing but compassion for them. How can one hate the crippled, the mentally deficient and the dead?

THE DRESSER Julian Clary (Norman) & Matthew Kelly (Sir) Photo© Alastair Muir
THE DRESSER Julian Clary (Norman) & Matthew Kelly (Sir) Photo© Alastair Muir.

Set in 1942 in a provincial theatre in war-torn Britain, The Dresser tells the story of Sir (played by Matthew Kelly) an aging actor-manager and his relationship with his devoted dresser of 16 years Norman (Julian Clary). They bicker and argue like a married couple with the waspish Norman giving as good as he gets as Sir treats him like an indentured servant.

The first act of the play is set backstage in a run-down, past its sell-by date, theatre as the company put on various Shakespeare plays. On the night The Dresser is set, it’s King Lear although Sir who is probably suffering from dementia thinks it might be Othello and starts to black up. In between the sparring between the two main characters, we also get to meet Her Ladyship (Emma Amos), apparently, Sir’s wife (and probably not his first) who wants to give up their itinerant lifestyle, Madge (Rebecca Charles), Sir’s long-suffering stage manager, Irene (Natali Servat) a young actress who Sir makes a clumsy pass at and Geoffrey Thornton (Pip Donaghy) an elderly bit-part actor who is playing The Fool in Lear but is desperate for bigger roles.

Whilst the first act is played out in Sir’s dressing room, in act two we’re backstage hearing the action played out off-stage where the rest of the cast are trying to get Sir on stage, play their parts and even make the sound effects for the storm scene before the action returns to the dressing room for the play’s denouement.

The play which is based on Harwood’s experiences as Sir Donald Wolfit’s dresser, opened in the West End in 1990 with Freddie Jones as Sir and Tom Courtenay as Norman – Courtenay went on to reprise the role in the 1983 film opposite Albert Finney. It was also re-made for television in 2015 with Anthony Hopkins as Sir and Ian McKellen as Norman.

So, Kelly and Clary have big shoes to fill which at times they don’t quite manage. Kelly does roar and rage and gives a bravura performance as a second-rate Shakespearian actor who’s not actually a knight of the realm – it’s just a title Norman has given him to give him some stature that the hammy actor doesn’t really deserve. However, Clary at times seems a little too comfortable in the role when he needs to be more acerbic and bitter. The two leads are ably supported by the rest of the cast although some of them have very few lines and are really there as background.

The real stars of the production are Tim Shortall’s superb set and Ben Omerod’s atmospheric lighting. The first act’s dressing room set is seedy, down at heel and full of the detritus of an actor’s dressing room including various wigs and costumes and high on a shelf is a skull from a past production of Hamlet and you can almost smell the mould of the dun-coloured room that is need of a complete refurbishment. In the second act, it’s transformed into the backstage area of the theatre before being turned back into the dressing room as if by magic.

This production of The Dresser is like the company in the play touring the UK although it’s doubtful that either Kelly or Clary will have their own personal dresser helping them backstage but judging by the dysfunctional relationship between Sir and Norman, that’s probably a good thing!

3 Star Review

Review by Alan Fitter

Theatre Royal Bath Productions and Everyman Theatre Cheltenham confirm new tour dates for Ronald Harwood’s highly acclaimed drama The Dresser starring the much loved UK entertainer Julian Clary as Norman and Olivier Award winner Matthew Kelly as ‘Sir’.

Directed by Olivier Award-winning Terry Johnson, The Dresser visits Richmond Theatre from 26 – 30 October 2021.
Inspired by memories of working as Donald Wolfit’s dresser as a young man, Ronald Harwood’s evocative, affectionate and hilarious portrait of backstage life is regarded as one of the most acclaimed dramas of modern theatre.

It is 1942 and in a war-torn provincial theatre an aging actor-manager, known to his loyal acting company as ‘Sir’, is struggling to cling on to his sanity and complete his 227th performance of King Lear.  For 16 years Norman, Sir’s devoted dresser, has been there to fix Sir’s wig, massage his ego, remind him of his opening lines and provide the sound effects in the storm scene. It is down to Norman to ensure that in spite of everything, the show goes on.

Theatre Royal Bath Productions and Everyman Theatre Cheltenham present
Julian Clary and Matthew Kelly in
THE DRESSER
Written by Ronald Harwood
Directed by Terry Johnson
Book Tickets for Richmond Theatre

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1 thought on “The Dresser at Richmond Theatre | Review”

  1. Sarah watterson- Griffiths

    Matthew Kelly was utterly spellbinding!
    Utterly brilliant show!
    Loved it.
    100% better than anything we’ve seen in the West End!

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