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Review: THE DRESSER, Richmond Theatre

Matthew Kelly and Julian Clary make an unlikely but captivating pairing

Review: THE DRESSER, Richmond Theatre

Review: THE DRESSER, Richmond Theatre In the right hands, Ronald Harwood's Olivier award-nominated tragicomedy The Dresser is poignant, hilarious and also heart-breaking. Terry Johnson's new touring version captures the undercurrent of deep sorrow of the play in a this rather meta production about a touring theatre company.

In 1942, as wartime bombs fall outside, an actor known only as Sir is struggling to prepare for his role as King Lear. His dedicated dresser Norman tries to rouse him from his mental and physical turmoil so he can make it onto the stage. Sir was once a renowned Shakespearean actor, but is now a disheveled shell of his former self, playing to provincial audiences.

Harwood drew on his own experience as a dresser for the legendary stage actor Sir Donald Wolfit, who was renowned for his pomposity and difficult nature. His script exposes the bitching, egotism and incredibly close relationships behind the theatrical scenes.

Matthew Kelly is truly excellent as Sir, showing flashes of profound self-importance, but is also very sympathetic as the reduced character. He is both pompous and pitiful as he disparages other actors as his hands shake uncontrollably. The character of Sir is not terribly nuanced, but loud and over the top. However, Kelly brings touches of real vulnerability and helplessness.

Julian Clary faces a harder task in this rare dramatic role as he is so entrenched in the public psyche as a standup comic or panto actor. He is suitably (and unsurprisingly) camp as Norman, but is also quietly acerbic and very witty. He copes admirably with the constant barbs thrown at him by Sir and his loyalty feels profound and completely genuine. There is a visible shift in Clary in act II, as he becomes progressively inebriated and heartbroken at Sir's apparent disregard for him.

Emma Amos is great as Sir's partner Her Ladyship, handling both Sir and the comedic situation of playing Cordelia at a rather advanced age with aplomb. Rebecca Charles is world-weary and uptight as the long-suffering stage manager Madge. Her hidden adoration of Sir is hinted at, but never really explored.

Tim Shortall's wonderfully evocative set echoes the run-down claustrophobia of war-time provincial theatre, with great attention to detail such as faceless mannequin heads along the dank, grey walls of the dressing room and fire exit signs glowing in the gloom. It is complimented perfectly by Ben Ormerod's atmospheric lighting.

The play is predominantly a two-hander. Much of the success depends on the intimacy in the relationship between the two men, which feels really convincing. The co-dependency of Kelly and Clary often feels painfully claustrophobic, as one cannot really exist without the other.

It is not a perfect show; Terry Johnson's direction allows the pace to rise and fall very naturally, but the potentially interesting sub plots, such as the general poor attitudes towards women and the glaring reality of Norman's sexuality, are not explored sufficiently.

This is a very enjoyable revival, with a surprisingly successful pairing of two men playing to all their dramatic strengths.

The Dresser is at Richmond Theatre until 30 October then touring

Photo Credit: Alistair Muir

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Aliya Al-Hassan is UK Managing Editor of BroadwayWorld. A London-based theatre critic and journalist, she has a life-long passion for the arts, with a focus on theatre and opera. She is a... (read more about this author)

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