REVIEW: The Dresser @ Theatre Royal

September 29, 2021

The Dresser

Theatre Royal

Director: Terry Johnson

Writer: Ronald Harwood

Set during the second world war in a theatre group touring the provinces we see into the backstage live of some of the key protagonists of the troupe. Julian Clary plays the eponymous dresser with a camp lilt and some compassion, there’s always the slide to bathos, mostly intentional but sometimes not so, which gives the character depth, and although we hear often of his ‘friends’ and their various psychodramas we never learn their names or quite what their friendships might consist of. There’s plenty left unsaid in this play and some unpleasant things said, in context for the times that kind of spiteful language was used but getting a laugh out of unintentional blackface make-up is still a laugh for blackface.

Clary as fussy dowdy costume dresser ‘Norman’ manages the script well, although it felt staccato in parts, perhaps this was how the character is meant to be but with the very loud and distracting rainstorm which was happening on the roof of the stage and could be heard in the stalls it made some of his softer speeches difficult to make out.  There were quite a few muddled lines and missteps which gave a feeling of mid-rehearsal to the night. Clary can make us laugh, and did so, with the right amount of wit, throw away and melancholic observations, the audience adored him. This part calls for some bitter spitting viciousness and here there was no mean, just sweetness curdled, no claw or nail, just bitterness and empty threat. A camp miserable bark with no bite.

Matthew Kelly, as ‘Sir’ the elderly actor-manager had no such problem, booming his lines across the spaces, having great fun being the boorish old thespian, bully, and man child, falling apart in front of us and being patched up by his ‘Dresser’ who seems more nursemaid and scold than costume support.  Kelly summoned up a dreadful old codger but also gave us some real vulnerability, never letting himself get likable, always standing astride his power and privilege but reaching for sympathy always, desperately crumbly. A wonderful performance and redolent of a monstrous male ego in decline.  Pussy, played by a wonderfully anguished Emma Amos was convincing and ironic as the ‘leading lady’ and fleshes out a thin role with humanity and believable exhaustion, giving us a once beautiful  woman at the end of her tether, Rebecca Charles was a thumper of a spinster who showed us that unrequited love is the only type of love that lasts forever and plays a cool mean hardlove foil to Clarys manipulative needling & bullying.

With some fun backstage chaos used to underline the decline of the leading man, the troupe pitching in to make the storm scene in King Lear a delight, and evocative staging from Tim Shortall and sound effects to give us the feel of a theatre in the Blitz there is real 1940’s character to this play and it convinced as a historical set piece. Ben Ormerod’s lighting is a period delight letting the moves from backstage, onstage, off stage work with subtle changes in prominence and shade.  By the time of the literal last curtain, we are back in the claustrophobic faded dressing room, not so secret nips of brandy marking time in between massaging of ego.

At the end we’re given a drunk exposed Norman, sitting with the corpse of his ‘Sir’, literally reflecting on his life to come and the denouement that he too was in love with him, along with his wife, some other members of the company and the paying public.  Was this a ‘twist’ – I’m not sure and 40 years ago when the play was written it might have surprised an audience in Colwyn Bay- but it was certainly a surprise to me, a practicing homosexual for more than 35 years, that there was any love going on in that relationship tween dresser and dressed and here the play left me cold and unmoved.

The Dresser is a  vividly evocative piece of drama which changes pace from tragedy to comedy like the Shakespeare it’s set within but cannot heave it’s heart into it’s mouth and left me unmoved with the unrequited sadness explored on stage.

Until Saturday 2nd October

For more info or to book tickets see the Theatre Royal website here