Sunday, October 2

The Dresser – The King’s Theatre

Since changes in restrictions have brought theatre back, sent it away and brought it back again, the number of plays about theatre and the theatrical experience have seemingly quadrupled. But Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser is different. It’s not about why we need theatre, or even why need actors. In fact, in keeping with Ronald Harwood’s dictate with didactic theatre, ‘The Dresser’ is art for art’s sake. But it soon becomes apparent that ‘The Dresser’ is more than just a bit of two-dimensional entertainment.

Norman, (Samuel Holmes) is the dresser to ‘Sir’ (Matthew Kelly) a stalwart actor, who now in the depths of WWII and in the midst of emotional despair, finds himself touring ‘provincial’ theatres in the blitz with a cast of ill-prepared actors. Every night they desperately try to cobble together various Shakespeare productions and support Sir’s stella performances of Shakespearian greats. Sir’s been deteriorating, and in the final hour before the tonight’s performance begins, his confidante, friend, colleague and all-round dogsbody, Norman, needs to keep the peace. Not only must he dress Sir for the part but convince Sir and everyone else around him that he’s fit to play the part.

Ronald Harwood’s script is a gift. If you love a bit of comedy and drama rolled into one, it’s got you covered. If you love Shakespearian intertextuality, you won’t be disappointed either. Steeped in metaphors, allegory and allusions, if you’re a Shakespeare lover, you’ll get it in an instant how Sir’s King Lear is more than just a role, and how battered Norman is the perfect antithesis for Sir in his embodiment some of Shakespeare’s greatest characters. To dwell on these incredible motifs in Harwood’s writing would spoil the Easter eggs that Harwood has laced the script with, but for now, trust me- it’s spectacular writing that really can’t be faulted whether you love Shakespeare or not.

Credit: Alastair Muir

For a play about treading the boards at whatever cost, there’s some irony that two of tonight’s principles were played by understudies. As billed, we were expecting Julian Clary as Norman, but Clary was unable to take to the stage due to illness, leaving Holmes to step into his shoes. It’s soon clear that this was no easy task, but Samuel Holmes is more than a match for the challenge. As Holmes delicately reels out Norman’s witty delightful monologues, Holmes revels in the moment, as if he had been solely cast from the get-go. Taking us from the scene of Sir’s hospital admission as if we were in a Greek tragedy, to rallying Sir up for the boards, this performance is unexpectedly sublime. Swaying between camp melodrama and genuinely heart-breaking moments, Holmes’ performance is a masterclass in restraint and balance. To lose Clary tonight is disappointing, but to be gifted with Holmes’s performance is a joy.

There’s no better fit for Sir than Kelly. In the course of a few hours, Kelly’s on fire, jumping from Sir’s depths of despair to his triumphant moments of grandeur, making this sometimes unpalatable character, very watchable. From his sinister moments, to his incredibly touching interactions with Madge, consummately played by Rebecca Charles, Kelly’s enviable dramatic stamina withstands the demands of the character. It’s captivating characterization from actor of true high calibre.

Terry Johnson’s direction is subtle and effective. Although designer Tim Shorthall takes us back to the drab and dreary days of WWII with his fantastic set, he also encapsulates the encroaching claustrophobia of a backstage dressing room fantastically, leaving Johnson to choreograph both frantic pacing and stillness in the space. In the second act, Shorthall and Johnson’s collaboration comes together beautifully as the actors dwell in the wings, desperately wondering if King Lear will come to fruition. Rarely does a second act surpass the second in any play, but Johnson’s creation of tension, comedy and despair backstage and onstage is infectious and wonderfully crafted. Even faced with scenes that make 2022 audience recoil in horror, the approach is simple, understated, yet highly effective.

The Dresser has it all- an incredible script, comedy and high drama. And, while it doesn’t seemingly have anything didactic to say, it does touch on that age old point- Shakespeare’s plots will never die.

This performance runs until Saturday 19th February

Reviewer: Melissa Jones

Reviewed: 15th February 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★