Brighton Year-Round 2021
This Theatre Royal Bath and Everyman Theatre Cheltenham production of The Dresser is directed by Terry Johnson, with set by Tim Shortall and lit by Ben Ormerod. John Leonard is Sound Designer, Casting Ginny Schiller CDG, Voice Coach Alison McKinnon, Associate Director Robert Shaw Cameron. Production Manager’s mark Carey for Shedworks Studio Ltd, Costume Supervisor Caroline Waterman, Props Jenny Campbell, Production LX and Tour Relights Barry Abbotts, , Production Carpenter Andy Stubbs, CSM Paul Ferris, DSM Chris Bradford, ASMs Stephen Cavanagh and Michaela Bennison, Wardrobe and Wig Manager Denny Evans. Till October 2nd.
Exactly five years ago Theatre Royal Brighton was visited by an outstanding production of Ronald Harwood’s 1980 play The Dresser with Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith directed by Sean Foley. Harwood, writer of Quartet and other masterpieces, died in 2020.
Now Matthew Kelly and Julian Clary take the principle roles, directed by legendary dramatist/director Terry Johnson; who brings this Theatre Royal Bath and Everyman Theatre Cheltenham production to Brighton.
Kelly and Clary lead a cast with some strong support. Theirs is a very different dynamic to what we’re used to in this work, with some fascinating decisions.
Harwood was Sir Donald Wolfitt’s Dresser, and though much is autobiography, here ‘Sir’ as he’s known is a notch down, not really knighted, a fine not universally feted actor, exhausted and in the opening set in 1941 not long after the bombing of Plymouth, clearly entering dementia. The wonder is he hath endured so long. By a fine irony, Harwood like Wolfitt really was knighted.
Tim Shortall’s set goes for simplicity. The dressing room of Sir, the principal actor-manager played by Kelly, lifts off diaphanously along with a stage right wall where others lurk outside, to reveal a side-slice of backstage with wings stage left where actors walk on to an imaginary 90% to us.
Ben Ormerod’s lighting contributes in particular to the complete set, fizzing with naturalistic wartime details. There’s a beautiful grille-like entrance of light high up, adding a real distinction. Gantries above and details of dressing room and that lateral cut-through view from the wings, also exquisitely lit. The production exudes what the design sets up: an evening of flat-out provincial Lear perilously swaying on the edge as the bombs fall. John Leonard’s sound makes much of bomb bursts and sudden bursts of period song.
We open in mid-argument over what to do about Sir, flinging his clothes off in the street and taken to hospital by Norman. If Kelly’s Lear did but usurp his wife as Pussy his common-law ‘Lady’ wife asserts, demanding he quit (as she herself lost the chance to go to Hollywood), Norman his loyal if dyspeptic Dresser is determined the show go on.
Norman’s reasons are complex. Knowing Sir will collapse without Doctor Theatre he’s equally aware the company will collapse without Sir – these are the dying days of the actor-manager companies; there’s no safety net. That includes Norman, a sometime actor facing life in a boarding house. Venal as he is, Harwood convinces us Norman, not above cruelty and savage self-interest, lives for Sir and the theatre itself.
Seeing Sir so clearly even Sir appreciates it, Fool to Lear, Norman gets most of the best lines. When Sir complains of the bombed Grand Theatre Plymouth as his debut venue, Norman returns ‘They weren’t to know’ of the Germans. However when Natali Servat’s pert Irene the company ‘mattress’ tries moving in on Sir, Norman threatens her not just verbally but with promise of violence. He knows her ambitions will kill Sir.
Playing against Norman’s camp wildness and against expectation, Clary exudes a certain wartime matte, a performance careful to avoid cliché or expectation. He can bring out something of the wild pain of the tremulous Norman beneath: the bitchily loyal, preternaturally hurt boy breaking through the coping equivocating peacemaker and coper of all slings and arrows. His opening speech is restrained, almost as if Clary’s telling an anecdote the morning after. He lacks, it must be admitted, Norman’s pathos at the very end, though he builds well to it and is genuinely threatening to Servat’s Irene.
Sir’s most formidable adversaries in one sense are his closest allies and rivals: Emma Amos makes much of Her Ladyship’s busty now less elfin Cordelia whom Sir must carry on in the last scene. Her contraband chocolate wins out over cigarettes, and Amos convinces us she’s not entirely devoid of feeling for her partner.
Her embittered entrances exits and flounces slam disappointment, a woman who might have made some living on the silver screen. Deliciously – I don’t remember this previously – Kelly drags on Amos instead of carrying her, like John Sergeant in Strictly in 2008. A hilarious Johnson touch.
More rationally, the administrator who sensibly feels the performance must be cancelled has to be reasoned with. Rebecca Charles’ manager Madge brings chiselled spinsterhood as carapace of her wistful desire for Sir – as he well knows. She’s been there 20 years, four more even than Norman.
Charles uncoils fragile tenderness towards the end when her true identity unspools in front of Sir and he promises her his most prized ring – which she later has to claim for herself. The recognition between Kelly and Charles form one set of the most tender exchanges; Charles’ performance is a tremulously restrained. Like several performances tonight, Charles too is muted,
The other agon is with Norman; their duetting forms the backbone of the evening. Kelly’s performances towers because reserves of tremendous energy are shivered out in a crumbling frame exactly like the Lear Sir portrays, a burnt-out cage of something vaster in his prime. Does this Sir but slightly know himself? Kelly’s switchback terrors, his aghast look of complete lostness, nail his as the outstanding performance of the evening.
There’s moments when recognition alternately dawns and dims, when he, like Lear with Gloucester and Cordelia, recognizes the faithful, Norman and Madge. Here the word ‘friend’ or even ‘only friend’ are bestowed capriciously like the ring Sir promises Madge.
Kelly most of all illumines the sudden fits and weepings Sir falls into, terrifyingly slips of even a human mask beneath the actor’s one. They show us the way a man of towering energy at the extremes can only collapse in a sparks shower, taking everything with him. There’s something of Greek terror in the comedic writing.
You sense Sir’s and Kelly’s intense absorption in role not just because of his faintly absurd but sincere speeches but because he can never believe those toiling in storm effects including Norman are doing enough: this always happens when he’s acting well, a heartening back-handed moment.
Sir’s self-ironizing too neatly skewers German bombers, vanishing just when most needed to create the right noises off. Sir scores when he can guy the opposition – hardly ever the Germans.
Moulded round a provincial night’s Lear this reading of a performance through flashes of lightning is most climactic when not begun: Sir’s sudden freeze before his first entrance is tricked out to preternatural lengths, barely credible, yet this sometimes happened. Thereafter you’re willing Sir to get through his sudden fits of desponding, his half invaded by Servat’s watchful, subtle Irene (his picking her up to test Cordelian lightness deliciously mistaken by her).
There’s superb support too from Pip Donaghy as the superannuated and promoted Geoffrey Thornton as Fool, grateful and suddenly more ambitious. Donaghy’s luxury casting in such a role and his nervous ask at the end is a moving and occasionally cringe-worthy highlight.
Samuel Holmes’ war-limping Mr Oxenby snorting Bolshevism at Sir whilst showing his real disgust lies in Sir’s not reading his play, is raspingly metallic rather than wooden; Holmes etches hm in acid. His expert mangling of the last lines as Edgar (far too declamatory) goes thankfully unnoticed, underlining the play’s scathed edge to the flames.
There’s almost invisible but audible contributions from Peter Yapp’s Gloucester, Robert Shaw Cameron’s Kent, Stephen Cavanagh’s Albany, and Claire Jeater and Michaela Bennison as part of the ensemble – most are creatives with stage jobs, and it’s a nice touch I’ve not seen before.
Johnson brisks the pace with a team he can allow to exhale the sour wartime air. He’s made interesting decisions – some remarkably creative – and others that as with Clary almost work against his exuberant strengths. It’s as if Johnson feels he needs to pitch against the obvious. Assistant to the anarchic Ken Campbell, Johnson possesses something of theatrical genius as writer and director, and anything he does is worth seeing, even when results are equivocal. Kelly and Donaghy in particular though, emerge triumphant with some fine support.
If you’ve not seen The Dresser, you shouldn’t pass up this production. If you have, it’s still worth seeing. It’s a masterly play from the inside, and this fine portrayal of near-disaster ending in a successful one, shows why.