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REVIEW: The Dresser at the Everyman Theatre

The Dresser Everyman Theatre Cheltenham

The Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham
Directed by Terry Johnson
Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Rating: ★★★★

“We all have our little sorrows, ducky .
You’re not the only one.
The littler you are, the larger the sorrow.
You think you loved him?  What about me?”
Norman, The Dresser

Life is precarious.  The shops are full of empty shelves.  The transport system is creaking at the seams.  Some foods are unavailable, and others are in short supply.  Fuel is scarce.  Human existence has been reduced to struggle and survival.  People are turning for consolation to the theatre, where vulnerable young actresses are preyed upon by powerful old men.  No, ducky , it isn’t post-Brexit, mid-pandemic Britain; it’s our war-torn, sceptred isle, 1942.

This enjoyable revival of the late Ronald Harwood’s ever-popular play – based on his stint as dresser to legendary actor-manager Donald Wolfit – is set backstage in a provincial theatre, during an air raid, on the night of a touring company’s performance of King Lear.  The leading roles are played by two household names, perhaps better known as entertainers than thespians: Matthew (Stars in Their Eyes) Kelly as theatrical warhorse ‘Sir’, and Julian (Joan Collins Fan Club) Clary as his long-suffering, loyal assistant, Norman.

The story focuses on the intimate, symbiotic relationship between actor and dresser.  Enter, stage right: the bombastic, pompous actor-laddie Sir – who, like a true narcissist, toggles between grandiosity and whining self-pity.  Enter, stage left: the sensitive, brittle Norman – who, like stage-manager Madge (played by Rebecca Charles), entertains unexpressed, unrequited feelings for Sir.  To assuage his grief, Norman self-soothes with contraband biscuits (snaffled from the mayor’s reception), chocolate (a gift from Sir’s other half, ‘Her Ladyship’, played by Emma Amos) and frequent nips of brandy.  We’ve all been there.

Tonight is Sir’s 227th performance of Lear.  Like his Shakespearian counterpart, Sir is ageing, capricious, and beset by confusion.  A bone-weary shadow of his former self, he can’t remember his first line, or even which play he’s in.  Norman (a failed panto performer) depends on Sir for status: he massages Sir’s ego, basks in Sir’s reflected glory, lords it over the rest of the company (including Her Ladyship) and bares his teeth whenever a potential rival appears – just like my dog, when another mutt eyes her stash of Bonios.

With a skilled playwright like Harwood, you know you’re in safe hands.  This well-constructed play delivered an entertaining blend of humour and pathos – although under Terry Johnson’s direction the production (postponed from last year) sometimes felt like it was struggling to get into top gear.  Following a lacklustre opening scene, things perked up with the arrival of Matthew Kelly, who seized the stage with alacrity, filling the auditorium with sound and fury.  The tempo quickened, and (after an uncertain start) Julian Clary seemed to relax.  As the evening progressed, momentum gathered and the play soared – although it fell briefly back to earth in the storm scene, which felt like a stiff breeze and an opportunity missed.

Tim Shortall’s set served the production well, moving smoothly from the dingy, damp-stained, prop-strewn (Yorick’s skull makes a discreet appearance) confines of Sir’s dressing room to the more spacious wings of the theatre, and back again.

The two leads played to the strengths of their own, well-loved stage personas: Kelly, the affable, flamboyant, sometimes irascible giant; Clary, the camp, gently-spoken master of the double entendre.  While both suited their roles well enough, I felt that Clary’s understated portrayal prevented him from fully expressing his character’s emotional range, especially in the climactic scene, which was begging for Norman’s repressed anger to be violently unleashed.

But hey – what do I know?  As Sir says, “Hate the critics? I have nothing but compassion for them. How can one hate the crippled, the mentally deficient, and the dead?”  Best take my opinion with a pinch of salt, and go see for yourself.

Running time: 2½ hours (including interval)
The Dresser runs at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, until Saturday 25 September 2021.

Reviewer: Paul Sharples
Explore Gloucestershire
22 September 2021

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