FeaturedReviewSouth East

The Dresser: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Reviewer: Simon Topping

Director: Terry Johnson 

Writer: Ronald Harwood

The action begins in a grimy mid-war theatre dressing room in 1942.  Norman (Julian Clary) and Her ladyship (Emma Amos) are frantically discussing the absence of Sir (Matthew Kelly) who needs to be dressed and onstage within an hour but as yet languishes in hospital after an unfortunate mishap on the high street.  

Sir, it would appear, is losing his faculties. He has been confused of late and in questionable state to play King Lear this evening.  After a terse conversation between Norman (who thinks they should wait for Sir, as he will come good) and Her Ladyship, as well as the stage manager, Madge (Rebecca Charles) who both think they should cancel the show, Sir barrels into view with a “show must go on” attitude.  Can Norman get him ready for the demanding performance?  The Brighton audience watches on in wonder. 

First performed in 1980, this popular play is inspired by the writer’s (Ronald Harwood) years spent dressing Sir Donald Woolfit.  The piece has been performed by an illustrious who’s who of British actors over the years including Ian McKellan as Norman and Anthony Hopkins as Sir in a 2015 BBc adaptation. 

From his very first shambling entrance  Kelly shines as the irascible and erratic actor manager.  He is particularly funny when bantering with Clary and as he addresses his audience directly at the curtain call of King Lear. His performance is vibrant and his physicality very engaging to watch. 

Clary is not, as he admits himself, a versatile actor, but he equips himself well as the brow-beaten dresser.  He is at his best as he shoots bitchy barbs back to his master, or rows with Madge.  He has, as you would expect, lovely comic timing. It is a role dense with dialogue and occasionally Clary grapples with this, especially in the second half when more weight is placed on the character of Norman. However the Brighton crowd warm to his performance, which will  improve as the run continues.   

The supporting players are a good selection of well honed character actors. Pip Donaghy as Geoffrey Thornton gets some hearty laughs from the room as the bumbling old hand in fear of Sir.  Amos and Charles are superb in the leading female roles both in love and exasperated by the forceful nature of Sir and his unwavering single mindedness.  

As the play goes on we see Norman rally his master from confusion and teary doubt to the resplendent roaring lion of yester-year. The to and fro of their co-dependent relationship is fascinating to watch and keeps the room enthralled, for most part.  

The use of offstage Shakespearean acting as Sir plays King Lear is a lovely device and keeps the audience on tenterhooks as to whether the “Great man” will fail or triumph in his night’s work.  Yet, the pacing seems to lag in act two and the piece slowly stutters to it’s close. 

The Dresser has some engaging performances and themes that resonate in the modern era, such as the unnerving power asserted by authority at the top of hierarchy and the abuses having that power can achieve. 

The sets, designed by Tim Shorthall,  are gloriously murky and evocative of dilapidated theatres in the twentieth century.  Clary shines in flourishes and Kelly’s performance is fabulously rambunctious, making the play well worth a watch on it’s own merits.  


Reviewed on 28th September

On tour till 30th October 

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