The Dresser in Richmond Theatre

Review: The Dresser at Richmond Theatre

Review: The Dresser at Richmond Theatre

Jenny Booth reviews this classic portrait of backstage life 


Ronald Harwood’s wartime play The Dresser feels a bit dated in places but is always being revived because it offers two such plum acting roles. Locked in an unhealthy co-dependency are Sir, the vain, decaying actor-manager of a third-rate touring repertory company, roused from his sickbed for his 227th and final performance of King Lear; and Norman, his loyal but waspish dresser, who mocks Sir behind his back but lives entirely through him. Harwood revealed that he drew on his own experience of spending five years as Sir Donald Wolfit’s dresser to add pungency to the characters and believability to the situation.

Some very fine actors including Albert Finney and Sir Antony Hopkins have played Sir, and to that honourable roll call, we must now add Matthew Kelly, whose performance is a tour de force. He nails the incorrigible vanity of the old ham, who cannot hear someone speak seriously about themselves without changing the subject to himself; and the chameleon-like shifts of mood from querulous self-pity to sonorous grandiosity. He portrays Sir’s physical frailty startlingly effectively, with a shuffling and stumbling gait, shaking hands and the propensity to fall into catatonic naps. He judges the role well, always a dominant presence without tipping over into caricature.

But for the play to work as it should, the character of Sir should be balanced out by Norman, who may be a more understated character – in the closet, as it were – but is not subordinate, and is required by Harwood’s script to run the gamut of fear, determination, fury, viciousness, drunkenness and emptiness. Sadly, Julian Clary has been miscast. He delivers his lines clearly and has an effortless ability to command the audience’s attention, but his light mockery is too unvaried and his portrayal of Norman just lacks bite – it does not plumb the emotional depths of the character. And for that reason, sections of Act 2 in particular creak uneasily.

It’s a pity because this is a high-quality production. The set is filled with telling vintage details: evoking, for example, Norman’s efforts to introduce comfort into a bleak dressing room in a provincial theatre and to transform it into a threadbare impresario’s lair. The costumes and sound effects are wonderfully of the period. Despite its dramatic flaws, this production is entertaining and well worth seeing.

The Dresser runs at the Richmond Theatre from 26 to 30 October.

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