Since the start of the pandemic, every time I get to see a show at the theatre I experience a ‘pinch me’ moment where I can’t quite believe it’s happening again. I always feel extremely grateful for the opportunity to see something new, whether it’s a genre I’ve seen many times such as musical theatre or a play with deeper themes that I have less experience of. The latter is actually at The Marlowe Theatre this week in the form of Sir Ronald Harwood’s 1980 play ‘The Dresser’. Starring notable actors Julian Clary and Matthew Kelly, the drama is a transparent account of life at the theatre during the World War Two era. Last night I attended the Marlowe’s press night for the production with my husband and I was really looking forward to seeing the intimate, people-centric narrative live on stage.
A production by Theatre Royal Bath Productions and Cheltenham Everyman Theatre, The Dresser tells the story of lead actor ‘Sir’ (Matthew Kelly) and his dresser ‘Norman’ (Julian Clary) who are trying to navigate the world of theatre during the blitz in London. Faced with a casting crisis due to the calling up of citizens into the armed services, the theatre company is attempting to keep their Shakespearean theatrical tour going despite Sir’s declining health and the air raids of the time.
Norman has been working for Sir for 16 years and he knows the actor better than anyone, much to the frustration of his actor wife ‘Her ladyship’ and the stage manager ‘Madge’ who has been by his side for even longer. The Dresser follows Sir and Norman’s life at the theatre, specifically focusing on the difficulties Norman faces now that Sir is experiencing memory loss and displaying signs of unstable behaviour.
Themes, influences and characters
Sir Ronald Harwood was known for his hard-hitting stories that reflect on difficult periods of history, specifically his screenplay for the 2002 holocaust film ‘The Pianist’. Harwood never intentionally looked for political or important tales to tell, he just wanted to write about real people.
The Dresser draws on Harwood’s personal experiences as Sir Donald Wolfit’s personal dresser for 5 years, but the character of Sir is not based on Wolfit. The relationship between Sir and Norman in The Dresser covers topics such as mental illness, ageing and loyalty. Norman is a vital support network for his employer, helping him with King Lear lines and stage make-up, knowing all too well that Sir’s mental health is declining and he cannot complete these tasks himself anymore. A complex character despite his personal aspirations within the theatre, Norman has many admirable qualities which include offering Sir plenty of encouragement when things get tough. He also adds humour to the drama at regular intervals, poking light fun during some of his manager’s more irrational moments.
The Dresser is a play about putting on a theatrical production, but the internal storyline runs at a slower pace to the actual drama. There are several interruptions to the fictional performance as a result of air raid sirens, something audiences at the time would have been familiar with.
The first act started with the retelling of Sir’s pre-show activities, his eventual return to the theatre and the company’s preparation for the evening’s performance. Before the real-life interval we were about to see the opening of King Lear, with the second half of The Dresser focusing on both acts of the Shakespearean piece and the dramatised interval. Throughout the production I felt like I was a fly on the wall to the creative process, watching the trials and tribulations of putting on a production during the early 1940s.
It was the dialogue that made The Dresser stand out for me. Julian Clary and Matthew Kelly executed Harwood’s words with depth and emotion, engaging the audience with every verbal exchange. The subdued dressing room set also helped draw the audience in, making them focus on the principal characters. It is the performers that carry this play and make you appreciate the difficulties of getting older, through the perspective of its lead performers.
A thought-provoking drama that reflects on some difficult themes, The Dresser* is a fascinating insight into the arts industry during wartime. With compelling dialogue and a talented cast, the 1980 production is still just as influential today with its focus on mental health as you get older. Julian Clary and Matthew Kelly work so well together onstage and audiences will not be disappointed with their rendition of Harwood’s source material. The Dresser is at The Marlowe Theatre until Saturday, before the tour continues onto the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford.
Thanks for reading my blog today.
Love Kat xxxx
*Our tickets and programme for The Dresser were gifted in exchange for a review of the performance.