Writer: Ronald Harwood
Director: Terry Johnson
In a play that centres around an actor who refuses to contemplate not performing in spite of being obviously unwell, it was perhaps the ultimate irony that, for the opening night of the show at King’s Theatre, Julian Clary missed the performance due to illness. In his place, Samuel Holmes stepped up to play the title role of The Dresser alongside Matthew Kelly as Sir.
Sir is the self-centred Actor Manager of a touring theatre company in the 1940s. His dresser is Norman, but the role of the dresser goes far beyond ensuring Sir has the right costume every evening. He is confidante, counsellor and conscience to Sir, managing both him and the wellbeing of the company as a whole.
It is not the easiest job a person could wish for, and his manager is no-one’s definition of the ideal boss. And yet, there is a tremendous amount of affection between the two men. For all that he won’t acknowledge it, Sir knows that he would be lost without Norman to indulge his whims, manager his moods and keep the company ticking over.
The company includes Her Ladyship (Emma Amos), the leading lady opposite Sir in all of their productions, and Madge (Rebecca Charles) his stage manager for more than two decades. Why any of them remain with Sir may seem hard to understand, but habit, tradition and the lack of alternative options may have something to do with it.
The play is set in a provincial town on an evening in 1942. The touring company are midway through a week-long repertory run where they will be doing different Shakespeare plays each evening. Tonight, it’s the turn of King Lear, not that Sir seems to be sure about this or to know how the play opens or progresses. This may have something to do with him being admitted to hospital earlier that day following what appears to have been a nervous breakdown.
With his identity and sense of self so closely tied to the stage, the option of taking a night off is not one that he can contemplate. Likewise, the fact that World War 2 means that most young actors are away fighting and the company is drawing on an ever smaller pool of talent is also no reason to step away from the stage. Even as an air raid begins, there is never any doubt in Sir’s mind that the show must go on.
The play has a gentle humour overlaid with large amounts of pathos. Matthew Kelly gives the perfect performance as a performer driven by ego, fear and denial as he refuses to acknowledge that his memory is fading and his acting prowess is no longer what it was. His unwillingness to accept the dying of the light adds to the poignancy of the closing moments of the play.
As Norman, Holmes has many of the best plays best lines, delivered with a biting wit, equal parts aware that Sir can’t manager without him but will never give him the credit he deserves. While he can’t bring the star name that draws audience’s in just by being on a cast list, Holmes gives a truly compelling performance and makes the role his own. He is more than just a foil for Sir as he dominates the first act and shows both why The Dresser rather than Sir is the name of the play, and why he was the perfect understudy in waiting.
Runs until 19 February 2022 then touring | Image: Alastair Muir