The Dresser Review

Cambridge Arts Theatre, Cambridge – until Saturday 16 October 2021

Reviewed by Steph Lott


It is 1942. ‘Sir’, an ageing actor-manager, is struggling to complete his 227th performance of King Lear, in the face of extreme adversity which includes air raids, falling bombs and his ailing health. It is down to Norman, Sir’s devoted dresser, to ensure that the show goes on in spite of everything, as it has for the last 16 years.

Matthew Kelly is the grandiloquent yet vulnerable Sir to Julian Clary’s adoring yet bitter Norman in this evocative revival of Ronald Harwood’s play, inspired by the years Harwood spent as dresser to Sir Donald Wolfit, an English actor-manager known for his touring wartime productions of Shakespeare (Wolfit was especially renowned for his portrayal of King Lear).

The play mostly takes place in Sir’s shabby dressing room, with a flying wall sectioning off the area where we can see actors waiting in the wings to enter Sir’s dressing room. This is an intriguing room, with tatty wigs on stands, a make-up table with huge lightbulbs and a faded chaise longue. Set and costume designer Tim Shortall has managed to convey the claustrophobia and intimacy of life backstage. The tension and claustrophobia suddenly lift when we switch to the backstage area as Sir gets ready to perform King Lear and the walls ascend to reveal the action behind the curtain.

Matthew Kelly is marvellous in role, constantly oscillating between the grandiose and the pitiful. He enters, all booming voice and theatrical bluster, a distraught, aging and egotistical actor brought low by poor health and self-pity, facing his final curtain call. Sir is both powerful and crumbling, both playing and being Lear. Will he manage the 227th performance?

Julian Clary delivers an intimate and poignant performance as the power behind Sir’s throne. Clary quickly gains our sympathies in his depiction of utterly devoted, hard-grafting, underrated dresser Norman, relentlessly bullied by Sir, who faces collapse when he should be onstage performing Lear. Clary’s performance in the final stages is fine: he embodies the bitterness and sadness of a grossly unappreciated friend and dedicated employee. We are witnesses to the men’s fraught, co-dependent dynamic and there’s a poignant chemistry between the two men in Sir’s dressing room, playing the same routines and dramas over and over again as they have for so many years.

The play isn’t all about the two lead characters though. Emma Amos delivers a fine performance as Her Ladyship, Sir’s longsuffering romantic companion, giving us fleeting insights into her unhappy enduring of his tyrannical and philandering ways. Rebecca Charles is excellent in her quiet interpretation of stage manager Madge, another of Sir’s circle who has been quietly and fruitlessly devoted to Sir, and Pip Donaghy steals the scene as actor Geoffrey Thornton, who ends up unexpectedly playing the Fool.

Though primarily a story about theatre life and its characters, The Dresser powerfully examines what it means to face the fear of growing old and one’s mortality. This is a touching new production of a modern classic.