Monday, 04 July 2022

Poignant portrayal of fading star and his faithful, unrewarded servant

THE DRESSER is one of playwright Ronald Harwood’s most successful works and perhaps his most personal since it’s based on his experience of working for the legendary actor-manager Donald Wolfit.

Legendary, yes, but almost forgotten now, the barnstorming Wolfit came from a repertory tradition where a travelling company would do a Richard III on Thursday, an Othello on Friday and then round off the week with King Lear. It was an arduous life and The Dresser captures its stresses, privations and occasional rewards.

The setting is an unnamed provincial city in the early stages of the Second World War, complete with air-raid sirens and Vera Lynn on the wireless. Sir (Matthew Kelly) is about to go on stage — for the 227th time — as King Lear.

Except he has just suffered some kind of breakdown, flinging off his clothes and rampaging through the streets like a real-life version of his royal character.

In the dressing room an hour before curtain-up waits Norman (Julian Clary), Sir’s faithful dresser and dogsbody.

Also in anxious attendance are Sir’s younger partner, Her Ladyship (Emma Amos), and stage manager Madge (Rebecca Charles) who has long carried a torch for the great, if fading, Shakespearian.

Like an exhausted hound scenting its final quarry, Sir only really stirs to life at the words “full house”.

It’s Norman’s job to prevent him lapsing into despair or settling for an existence of “tranquil senility”.

He has to remind the actor what play he’s in and to run (repeatedly) through his opening lines. In a scene which is at once comic and painful, he literally pushes Sir into making his Act One entrance on stage.

The relationship between the two men is at the heart of the play. It’s one of mutual need and dependence, even if Sir never quite acknowledges his debt to Norman.

Clary captures the mixture of resentment, exasperation and affection which Norman feels for his boss, while Kelly is at one moment a commanding thespian and the next a confused old man — exactly like Lear.

Tim Shortall’s set shifts between the cluttered intimacy of the dressing-room and the cavernous wings of the theatre, while the remaining cast of players and stagehands under the direction of Terry Johnson flutter like moths about Sir’s flickering star.

Altogether this revival of The Dresser makes for a rewarding and sometimes poignant evening.

Philip Gooden

More News:

POLL: Have your say