The Dresser

Theatre Royal Bath, until Saturday 18 September

Words by Emma Clegg

There’s nothing so poised for dramatic effect as a production with two interdependent protagonists. Especially if charisma is at play. Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser, first performed in the West End in 1980, took advantage of this powerfully with his portrayal of an ageing touring actor and his devoted personal assistant.

Modelled on Harwood’s experience as a dresser to Shakespearean actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit in the 1950s, The Dresser is set in 1942 in a war-torn provincial theatre where ‘Sir’ (Matthew Kelly) is about to start his 227th performance of King Lear, as Norman (Julian Clary) proves himself indispensable on the night as he pulls Sir back from the edge, keeps him on track, prompts his first lines, gets him on stage, and then provides the production’s stormy sound effects backstage.  

For a play that’s just over 40 years old, The Dresser has already become a classic, and one that has proved Harwood’s most enduring, performed all over the world and adapted for film and television, with Sir played by actors such as Freddie Jones, Albert Finney, Anthony Hopkins and Ken Stott, and Norman by Tom Courtenay, Ian McKellen, Reece Shearsmith and Nicholas Lyndhurst.

The play is bleak and comical in equal measure, the former in its portrayal of an actor past his prime, losing his mind and worn down by years of touring, but who remains all-consumingly defined by the theatre, and the loyal and long-suffering dresser whose own life has been subsumed by supporting his egotistical and bullying master. It also portrays the rough and unluxurious life of the touring actor (“I’m sick of cold railway trains, cold waiting rooms, cold Sundays in Crewe and cold food late at night” says her Ladyship, Sir’s wife, played by Emma Amos), touching in the context of the period where the drive to perform Shakespeare would have given valued entertainment to those enduring air raids and wartime gloom.

The comedy comes in its acutely observed portrait of two co-dependent figures and their idiosyncrasies

The comedy comes in its acutely observed portrait of two co-dependent figures and their idiosyncrasies. There are plenty of dryly delivered one-liners and chaotic scenes such as when Sir’s late appearance in Act 1 of King Lear (playing invisibly stage right) forces amusing ‘improvised’ lines from the unseen co-actors such as, “Methought I saw the King!” Another sees Norman bravely struggling to operate all aspects of the storm backstage, ricocheting from the rain and rolling thunder machines, batting claps of thunder with two wooden posts and providing a rolling beat on the drums.

For two actors widely known for specialisms other than serious acting (Clary as comedian, novelist and presenter and Kelly for presenting roles such as Stars in their Eyes), they do an impressive job. Kelly, who trained as a theatre actor and has in recent years worked widely in the West End, has a thrilling vocal power and physical presence (bringing to life the petty theatrics of his character behind the scenes as well as his in-character King Lear lines). Clary is an enchanting choice for the effeminate, put-upon dresser and while he does not really transform from the Julian Clary that we know and love, he does find a new version of Norman that is lovable, moving and amusing, and his natural dryness and sardonic manner is a top-notch match for classic lines such as, “My memory is like a policeman. It is never there when you want it.”

The set evokes a battered wartime theatre and is ingenious in its swift transformation from backstage dressing room to stage curtain, to offstage. As a play within a play, King Lear and his fool mirror the actor and his dresser, with both fool and dresser acting as caretaker and protector as well as honest commentator behind their masters’ big ideals. Here is an evocative and highly entertaining portrait of life backstage and a commentary on the enmeshed ennui and joy of regional theatre, as Norman says “Never, never despairing! Well perhaps, sometimes at night, or at Christmas, when you can’t get a job in a pantomime!”