The Dresser, Bath Theatre Royal

RONALD Harwood’s 1980 play The Dresser is out on tour again in a new production, opening at Bath Theatre Royal and stopping at 12 venues around the UK until February.

Set in January 1942 in a provincial theatre, with German bombs falling all around, it’s a period piece harking back to the days of the actor-manager, with all its mock formality and time-honoured theatrical traditions. Harwood spent five years as dresser to Sir Donald Wolfit, one of the last of the great actor-managers. He went on to write hugely successful plays and screenplays including The Pianist and Quartet. His experiences with the Wolfit Company, famous for its wartime Shakespearean tours, are at the heart of The Dresser.

Norman has been Dresser to Sir for 16 years, devotedly pandering to the great man’s tempers, exactingly detailed requirements and foibles, always putting himself at one removed from emotions, experiences and love. When Sir goes missing before a performance, it’s Norman who can find him and rebuild him in time for Curtain Up.

On the night in question Sir is about to give his Lear, but he’s in hospital, weeping.

This Theatre Royal Bath and Everyman Cheltenham production stars two men who began their careers as comedians and presenters, Matthew Kelly and Julian Clary. After training as actors, both became famous television personalities.

In the early 2000s Kelly assayed various dramatic roles with huge success and unexpected subtlety – who will forget his Of Mice and Men? Perhaps his Sir lacks the wattage needed to convey the mercurial, self-centred and irresistibly charismatic star – we’d call him a narcissist today.

Clary, whose camp comedy led directly to flamboyant pantomime roles, takes on the challenge of the complex and gentle dresser with great charm and delicacy, managing to cover his nerves in the precariousness of Norman’s own position.

The Dresser is essentially a two-hander, played on Tim Shortall’s cleverly atmospheric set that almost persuades the audience they can smell the Leichner and the damp.

Rebecca Charles is particulary poignant as stage manager Madge, with Pip Donaghy making the very most of his last-ditch Fool. Her Ladyship’s delivery could do with some sharpening.

The Bath performances are at the start of a tour which was one of the many victims of the pandemic, and whose cast has been in stop-start mode for months. It’s not surprising that there were a few glitches, but they should soon be ironed out.

 Photographs by Alastair Muir

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