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The Dresser starring Julian Clary & Matthew Kelly | Review

Ronald Harwood’s 1980 play is a fictionalised description of a barnstorming actor-manager ‘Sir’, who, despite his fading memory and recent nervous breakdown, is touring the provinces in World War Two, about to give yet another performance of King Lear. Looking after him is his ever-faithful dresser, Norman.

Julian Clary and Matthew Kelly in tour of The Dresser
Julian Clary and Matthew Kelly in tour of The Dresser

The superb Matthew Kelly is ‘Sir’, his acting naturally charismatic, and commanding the stage whenever he is present, which is most of the time. He clearly understands the non-naturalistic and much larger than life style of acting which is required, yet is able to draw the audience into some very intimate scenes which are often painful and moving to watch, especially towards the end. As Lear, although we only see and hear his portrayal from offstage, he is obviously giving the performance of his life and we wonder how he does this night after night, week after week as well as running his company when all his able actors have been conscripted.

His dresser, Norman, is in the hands of Julian Clary. This is a total contrast in performance style, being subtle and soft-spoken and a much more personal view, and works beautifully. He is able to control ‘Sir’ subtly, and ignores all the jibes directed at him. He draws us in by his very quietness and flowing performance, being totally believable. His final monologue is very still and very personal.

The secondary roles are all cast from strength, even those who have little to do.

Pip Donaghy, promoted to playing the ‘Fool’ in Lear, his first-ever real role after many years in the acting profession, is able to move one almost to tears by his ‘gratefulness’ to ‘Sir’ who actually compliments him. This is one of the few scenes in which ‘Sir’s’ humanity is shown, almost in spite of himself.

Emma Amos as ‘Her Ladyship’ makes more of her role than Harwood gives her, as does Rebecca Charles, the very long-suffering ‘Madge’, stage manager. Samuel Holmes, ‘Mr Oxenby’, clearly a fish out of water in this acting company, makes the most of the few chances he is given to establish a believable role, but this play is really a two-hander and Clary and Kelly do it proud.

The composite set, showing both dressing room and backstage, has been cleverly designed by Tim Shortall and evocatively lit by Ben Ormerod. In fact, my only minor complaint is that the National Anthem in Act Two is clearly performed electronically, which could not have happened in the 1940s!

This forty-year-old play emerges fresh as paint in this new production by Terry Johnson and is well worth catching on its long tour which encompasses Richmond (London), Norwich, Canterbury, Plymouth and Cambridge, with other venues still to be added.

Highly recommended.

5 Star Rating

Review by John Groves

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.

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.

Joining Julian Clary and Matthew Kelly in the cast are: Emma Amos as Her Ladyship, Rebecca Charles as Madge, Natalie 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.

Starring Julian Clary & Matthew Kelly
Written by Ronald Harwood
Directed by Terry Johnson

The Dresser is at Theatre Royal Brighton from Tuesday 28th September, 2021 to Saturday 2nd October, 2021.


  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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