As much as I hate to use the word ‘cosy’ about any story set during the Second World War (it was an enormous war, folks, not an Etsy moodboard), there’s something rather reassuringly homely about this production of The Dresser. Sir – an ageing actor/manager – has a dressing room full of simple comforts: tea, biccies, a spot for a lie down. Norman – his dresser – is quick to address his distress. And the rest of Sir’s theatre company barge in and bicker like members of a large and dysfunctional family. All this adds up to a feeling that you’re on safe territory, and can sit back, relax and enjoy a good old dose of well-crafted comedy.
It is easy to underestimate our need for this kind of show, but after an incredibly challenging couple of years, The Dresser was just right: full of easy laughs and celebrating our need for theatre and stories, even when world events might suggest they are irrelevant.
At its heart, The Dresser is deeply fond of the world it mines for comedy – that of the struggling provincial touring theatre troupe, trekking up and down the country on a shoestring budget, making sure the people get to see Shakespeare’s plays performed, no matter how obscure their town. This fondness adds a real sense of warmth, which helped skim past the odd moment when the humour or language slightly jars with some contemporary sensibilities.
Julian Clary is an excellent
It took some time to realise that Matthew Kelly, playing Sir, really is the same man who fronted Stars in Their Eyes many years ago. Kelly is absolutely superb – capturing Sir’s volatile energy as he swings between booming thespian master and a lost, frightened old man with behaviours familiar to anyone who has cared for a person with dementia (the repeated questions, blanks in memory and erratic flashes of anger, abandon and childlike vulnerability). We get to enjoy his Shakespearean outpourings, but also recognise the tendency to melodrama that can come with defining acting as your reason for being (without going full Stephen Toast).
Whilst there has been speculation over the years as to how much of the play is based on writer Sir Ronald Harwood’s experiences as a dresser to Sir Donald Wolfit (it isn’t, as Harwood makes clear in the programme notes), there’s no doubt that the wit and warmth of The Dresser is rooted in intimate observations of backstage life. As a result, it feels as though we, the audience, have been treated to a delicious peek behind the scenes, and reminded that behind every show there are an army of Normans and Madges, toiling out of sight. If