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The Dresser

by on 28 October 2021

Speak Well of Me

The Dresser

by Ronald Harwood

Theatre Royal Bath Productions and Everyman Theatre at Richmond Theatre until 30th October, then tour continues until February 2022

Review by Eleanor Lewis

The relationship between actors and crew in a theatrical production used to be (and probably still is in some companies) delicate, there was an Upstairs Downstairs vibe to it.  Actors created a performance and soaked up the applause, but it couldn’t happen without set builders, props, lighting, sound, dressers, and numerous others none of whom were ever visible.  Like servants they were ‘below stairs’.

Ronald Harwood was dresser to the famous actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit for some years after WWII, at a time when social dynamics were shifting on a grand scale.  Men and women who had fought for their country came home wanting a life of their own rather than one ‘in service’ to another family. 

Similar changes were taking place in the world of touring theatre.  Donald Wolfit, who took the leading role in all the Shakespeare works his company played around Britain in the 50s, also managed the company.  Thus he wielded enormous power, his actors and crew totally dependent on him, but he was drained emotionally and physically because of it.  The more democratic theatre companies, like Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, were just beginning to appear and Wolfit’s era was coming to an end.

The Dresser is about the end of that era.  Norman (Julian Clary) has been dresser to Sir (Matthew Kelly) for longer than he cares to remember.  Sir is an enormous theatrical presence, but he’s reaching the end of his rope, stressed, creatively spent, and ageing.  Norman is his rock: “Never, never despairing.  Well. Perhaps. Sometimes. At night. Or at Christmas when you can’t get a panto.”  He has devoted his life to Sir, sustained only by his love of theatre and a half bottle of brandy kept in his trouser pocket. 

Like many theatrical pairings these two characters must have chemistry, and Clary and Kelly suit each other very well.  Julian Clary’s Norman being a perfect mix of indefatigability and desperation, held together with a searing wit.  Matthew Kelly, after shaking off a brief but unnerving panto-esque phase, as Sir enters shambling and shaking after his town centre collapse.  Kelly plays a colossus of an actor, staggering about the stage, trying to keep all his plates in the air in the present, but with an eye to ensuring he’s remembered in some way in the future too.  Such is this actor’s skill that he managed to pull off the portrayal of this overwhelming character without eclipsing the rest of the cast.  (Kelly also has a fabulous, booming, theatrical voice which he deploys from time to time, significantly boosting the atmosphere). 

Her Ladyship, played by Emma Amos, is Sir’s ‘wife’.  In the hands of Emma Amos she was a dignified but neglected 1950s wife, soldiering on despite the odds, most of the talent she had exhausted out of her but a glimpse of it still present.  It’s not often Her Ladyship is played with quite that level of detail. 

Madge (Rebecca Charles), the stage manager who has been in love with Sir for twenty years, was also both a woman emotionally neglected but yet a driving, capable force in the company.  Another indication of things to come perhaps.  And Irene, (Natali Servat), the youngest woman in Sir’s orbit and the one keenest to rise, by whatever means, within the company was a neat combination of blind ambition and total lack of judgement.

There are other small vignette characters: Oxenby, an angry man who won’t be ignored and of whom Sir is, surprisingly, terrified.  Played by Samuel Holmes, you could almost feel little sparks of rage flying off him.  Also an endearing Mr Thornton, (Pip Donaghy) an older actor at the end of his career, grateful to be cast and hoping for one last hurrah.  They are a little world unto themselves, half of them exhausted, the other half desperate for the better times ahead.  What binds them is their love of theatre, and it’s an unconditional love.

The play takes all these characters through a performance of King Lear in a provincial theatre in 1942 while air raid sirens sound and the audience are given the option to leave and actors and crew turn all hands to whatever is needed including the creation of the storm on the “blasted heath” in order to bring Shakespeare to the masses and keep everyone in work.  The following night they’ll be doing a different play and the following week they’ll be in a different place.

Ronald Harwood wrote with such skill that comedy and tragedy exist in perfectly equal parts in this work. It can therefore be played either way or equally balanced.  Theatre Royal Bath’s production achieved a balance, though Tuesday night’s audience, emerging from lockdown and happy to be back in an auditorium, responded eagerly to the laughs, and why not?  The comedy to be found in Norman’s final disillusionment immediately underlined the awful sadness of his position as soon as the laughter sounded.

Ben Ormerod’s dingy but clear lighting and John Leonard’s sound, which seemed able to differentiate between voices inside and outside the dressing room, beautifully added to Tim Shortfall’s set, so that there was, ironically a backstage provincial theatre on the stage of an outer London theatre.  The costumes and props, from Her Ladyship’s silk robe to the battered tin in which Norman kept the occasional biscuit, could not be faulted.

The Dresser is a great play, it will become a classic if it hasn’t already and this is a great production, well worth seeing.  “Speak well of me,” Sir implores Madge as he tells her she’s to inherit all his press cuttings.  Speak Well of Me became the title of Sir Ronald Harwood’s biography and on the basis of The Dresser it’s difficult to do anything less.

Eleanor Lewis, October 2021

Photography by Alastair Muir

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