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BWW Review: THE DRESSER, Theatre Royal Bath

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Touching new production of a modern classic, with Julian Clary and Matthew Kelly

BWW Review: THE DRESSER, Theatre Royal Bath

BWW Review: THE DRESSER, Theatre Royal Bath Theatre Royal Bath is the ideal venue for Olivier Award-winning Sir Ronald Harwood's play about a touring rep company set in "a theatre in the English provinces", according to the programme notes. You can't get more English than Bath, with its honey-tinged Georgian terraces and nods to Jane Austen's bonneted Regency times.

This revival - directed by Terry Johnson, another Olivier recipient - doesn't try anything too new-fangled, sticking to its roots in wartime Britain where air raids and the crashing of bombs threaten the worlds of players and audience alike. But move forward 80 years to pandemic-struck and post-Brexit Britain, and we have a not dissimilar shellshock. Substitute trying to find lorry drivers and fruit-pickers for trying to recruit actors from returning disabled soldiers, and suddenly, this production becomes oddly relevant.

Harwood's cleverly conceived work, originally starring Freddie Jones and Tom Courtenay, was first performed on March 6, 1980 at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, transferring two months later to the Queen's Theatre, London. Following a 200-performance stint on Broadway, it was adapted into an acclaimed film, this time with Albert Finney playing opposite Courtenay ­- the latter picking up a Golden Globe for his performance.

That might seem like a lot for Julian Clary (playing the loyal but dissatisfied dresser Norman) and Matthew Kelly (a bombastic yet vulnerable Sir) to live up to, but there's a poignant chemistry between the two men who are tucked away in Sir's shabby dressing room, with wonderful Gothic overtones. Set and costume designer Tim Shortall's spooky wigs on faceless stands, make-up table with huge lightbulbs (not a teensy LED in sight), fading chaise longue and ominous skull atop a cupboard admirably set the scene. Shortall effectively conveys the claustrophobia of backstage life, with a nifty flying wall opening up the area to accommodate actors waiting in the wings.

After a few stumbles over his first lines, Clary quickly gains our sympathies in his depiction of hard-grafting, underrated dresser Norman, bullied by the tragic Sir, who collapses on the day he's meant to be performing Lear. As many Millennials multi-skill to survive today, so does poor Norman, taking on the tasks of nanny, therapist, nurse, cook and confidante, as well as ensuring Sir's underwear is washed and the fur on his Lear cloak is smoothed sufficiently. Think modern slavery behind the red velvet theatre curtain.

Kelly, who's probably best known for his mainstream television work, gets a chance to show he's capable of far more than sitcoms and game shows. Shifting from bellowing to weeping, all too well aware that he's losing his faculties, Kelly successfully displays the highs and lows of the powerful yet crumbling actor-manager. He's playing Lear and is Lear at the same time, where forgetting his lines is tantamount to his failing powers.

It's not all about the lead duo, however. Emma Amos, decked out in a burgundy silk dress and matching hat, offers a strong rendering of Her Ladyship, Sir's frustrated, long-suffering wife. She carries on best she can, ready for that evening's performance as Cordelia. However, we get insight into her unhappy endurance marriage to this philandering tyrant via references to her comfort eating.

Rebecca Charles is excellent in her quiet interpretation of stage manager Madge, and Pip Donaghy is a scene-stealer as actor Geoffrey Thornton, who ends up unexpectedly playing the Fool. Natali Servat's depiction of ingenue Irene shows both steel and defencelessness, as she tries to advance her career while escaping Sir's attentions - even though the one feeds into the other.

Though primarily a paean to the theatre, The Dresser potently examines what it means to face the terrors of growing old and one's mortality. It's also about how to survive in times of crisis - something we can all strongly engage with today. A touching new production of a modern classic.

The Dresser runs until September 18 at Theatre Royal Bath and is then touring. For more information, go to www.theatreroyal.org.uk

Photo credit: Alastair Muir


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