The Dresser follows the drama of one particular night as a touring theatre company attempts to put on a performance of King Lear. There are plenty of elements causing chaos. An air raid, for starters. Then you have the company’s leading actor, Sir, on the brink – arguably already right in the middle – of some kind of nervous breakdown. And who’s holding the whole thing together? The always reliable, always unshakeable Norman – Sir’s dresser.
Inspired by writer Ronald Harwood’s own experienced as a theatre dresser, the show so brilliantly and accurately portrays life behind the scenes of a frantic production. Arrogance, ego and hidden insecurities. Director Terry Johnson does a wonderful job of bringing touches of poignancy to an otherwise relatively lighthearted play.
The character of Sir is an unquestionably difficult one to play. Raging from uncontrollable tears to moments of infuriating arrogance and irascible temper, it’s hard to find much to like about Sir – yet Matthew Kelly makes the character one we want to root for. He brings likeable vulnerability to the part, providing the perfect platform for Julian Clary’s exasperated Norman.
Julian Clary is simply perfect as Norman. Dry, witty and fiercely protective over his Sir, Clary is a real force of nature every time he’s on stage and it’s a treat to watch his performance. Clary makes the most of every eye roll without ever slipping into over exaggeration and, when the time comes for his more serious acting prowess to shine, he holds the audience in the palm of his hand.
The set, designed by Tim Shortall, appears minimalistic at first glance until you start to notice every little touch from the mannequins to the kettle tucked away in the corner. It’s a delightfully intricate set which brings the audience right into the heart of the action.
It’s a slight shame the actors don’t seem to be amplified. While this is the traditional way, I’m sure those further back in the auditorium might have struggled to hear some of the quieter members of cast. That said, it’s quite refreshing to enjoy a straightforward play that puts storytelling and genuinely talented acting front and centre without flashy stage effects and other techy distractions doing most of the hard work.
The Dresser is a play that absolutely resonates with our current times, despite the play’s age. And who doesn’t adore national treasures Julian Clary and Matthew Kelly? If you have a spare evening this week, I wholeheartedly recommend getting a ticket.
Don’t miss The Dresser at the Alhambra Theatre, Bradford – running until 12th February 2022.
Photograph credited to Alastair Muir