The Dresser – Richmond Theatre, London

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Writer: Ronald Harwood

Director: Terry Johnson

Age cannot wither The Dresser, Ronald Harwood’s most popular play. First performed in 1980, It remains a spell-binding drama, both achingly funny and increasingly poignant, as dresser Norman attempts to soothe, distract or cajole Sir, an ageing actor-manager, into getting costumed and on stage as King Lear. It is a play that has always attracted a starry cast, and now in Terry Johnson’s touring production, Matthew Kelly and Julian Clary are captivating as Sir and Norman respectively. Audiences only familiar with the actors in their showbiz days cannot fail to be impressed by the depth and range of their acting abilities here, the sheer humanity they bring to their performances.

It’s the evening after a catastrophic night. Lear-like, Sir seems to have lost his mind, wandering stormy streets, howling and raging, shedding layers of clothing, until he is taken to hospital. When the play opens, he has discharged himself. He staggers into the dressing room, collapsing into a chair like a deflated balloon. His face distorts as he starts to weep, Kelly’s sympathetic features giving him a childlike vulnerability.

But once in his kingly costume, his flowing white hair making him look like Blake’s God, Sir is transformed. His voice is rich and resonant. His lines, mercifully, come back to him. We do not see him on stage, but backstage an impromptu rehearsal of his grief-stricken scene with the dead Cordelia has convinced us of the abilities that have brought him fame.

Clary is beautifully restrained as Norman, who alone understands Sir’s mercurial moods. He himself has never wanted to act, hopelessly fluffing his front of house announcement when an air raid siren goes off: “Those of you who want to live – I mean leave – ” and pathetically seeking reassurance that he has performed well. But in fact being the dresser is a secret acting role, one Norman plays with skill and sensitivity. When Sir won’t speak to him, Norman keeps up a stream of comforting chatter, ventriloquizing Sir’s likely responses. When Sir is finally lured in, he is often rude and impatient. Despite this, Norman maintains his role as nanny – Shall we put our make up on now? A gag which shouldn’t work but does is when Norman returns after a few minutes elsewhere to find Sir, thinking he is to play Othello, contentedly making himself up in blackface. What actually shocks are Sir’s aggressively homophobic sneers about “pansies” and the like in front of the camp but closeted Norman.

The gender politics of the piece are uncomfortably of their time. The women’s roles are minor and largely unsympathetic. Sir’s glamorous younger wife, “Her Ladyship” (Emma Amos), briskly insists the show must be cancelled: Who really cares if he acts or not? She is playing Cordelia to Sir’s Lear, but in the line’s echoes of “reason not the need”, she is evidently Goneril. Stage manager Madge (Rebecca Charles) seems equally hard-faced, until, that is, her unrequited love for Sir is quietly revealed. Sir is clearly a womaniser – he makes embarrassing attempts to seduce a young stage hand. But the wit of Norman’s waspish comments seduces us into judging the women as he does. He jealously guards Sir from what he sees as their dangerous predations.

But somehow the power of Norman’s long, unselfish devotion to Sir and the unspoken depths of their relationship allow us to invest in these two damaged men. Norman’s instinctive understanding of Sir’s underlying fears and insecurities allow us to care about them both. Norman’s position is ultimately a tragic one. What role will be left for him once Sir has gone?

Runs until 30 October 2021 then touring

The Reviews Hub Score

Wit and humanity

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