January 18th - January 22nd
Inspired by memories of working as Donald Wolfit’s dresser as a young man, Ronald Harwood’s evocative, affectionate and hilarious portrait of backstage life is one of the most acclaimed dramas of modern theatre.
It is 1942 and in a war-torn provincial theatre an ageing actor manager, known to his loyal acting company as ‘Sir’, is struggling to cling on to his sanity and complete his two hundred and twenty seventh performance of King Lear.
It is down to Norman, Sir’s devoted dresser, to ensure that in spite of everything, the show goes on. For sixteen years Norman has been there to fix Sir’s wig, massage his ego, remind him of his opening lines and provide the sound effects in the storm scene.
Norman will be played by one of the UK’s most unique and best loved entertainers. Julian Clary’s successes include television, radio, films, writing and stand up comedy, which he has performed all over the world. His West End starring roles range from London Palladium pantomimes to Taboo .
Playing ‘Sir’ will be Matthew Kelly,winner of an Olivier Award for Of Mice and Men. His other West End credits include Waiting For Godot with Ian McKellen, Comedians and Troilus and Cressida. His many television credits include the award-winning thriller Cold Blood, Benidorm, Bleak House and Moving On .
Ronald Harwood’s plays include Taking Sides, Equally Divided and Quartet. His screenplay for the film of The Dresser, received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Screenplay. He won an Academy Award for The Pianist .
Terry Johnson is the recipient of a dozen major theatre awards. His directing credits include Mrs. Henderson Presents, Hysteria and The Libertine .
“Riotously funny” Express
“A glorious play” Daily Telegraph
“Poignant, funny and utterly authentic” Mail on Sunday
“A hugely entertaining evening, rich in comic moments” Sunday Times
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours 25 minutes, including 20-minute interval.
What a fantastic play - brilliant acting and comic timing from Julian Clary.A Lovely relationship between Norman (Clary) and Sir (Kelly) - thoroughly enjoyable evening - highly
Wow. Amazing. Fantastic. Just brilliant acting. Julian Clarey and Mathew Kelly. I just loved them in this play. I could watch it over and over again. Thank you 🙏
BRILLIANT What a perfomance by JULIAN CLARY (Norman)And MATTHEW KELLY(Sir).
This was a Very Special Night to Witness One of the Great Performances by Both,
If you are Free Its a Must See
Just a Real Treat
Once again ( like so much else at Malvern this year ) the evening was a triumph with a sell-out house
shouting multiple bravos to a superb company presenting a superb play.
Ronald Harwood's long familiar play, "The Dresser" examines the tradition of actor-management, whereby a star
actor would tour the provinces with his own Shakespearean company bringing culture and a tried and tested
repertoire to audiences starved for a taste of quality acting and fine language in the days before widespread television.
The stamping ground for these men was the provinces and they presented their Hamlets, their King Lears and their
Macbeths under extremely demanding conditions, bitterly cold railway stations on Sundays, draughty, grubby theatres
and limited theatrical resources where lighting boards failed and sets fell down.And at the end of it, possibly damp beds and poor food.
They were often tyrannical megalomanics, ruling other actors with a rod of iron. But Shakespeare was their God
and they had a steadfast belief in their mission which was to bring the Swan of Avon to a needy public.
There were women too, possessed of the same burning zeal, women such as Marie Rambert who, in wartime, would take a company
of young, under-paid ballet dancers into draughty munitions factories, where they would present "Swan Lake ( one way or another) in the work's canteen
to the astonishment of the men and women who spent the day making bombs for Spitfires.
In Harwood's delightful play, where wartime theatre continues as German Junkers rain down bombs, and Lear's
soliloquies are often interrupted by sirens warning of an imminent raid, we move through the last hours of "Sir"( Matthew Kelly
in a magnificent performance) who is to give his Lear that evening, but, as the play opens, is nowhere to
As the half hour gets nearer and the stage manager ( Rebecca Charles) approaches a nervous breakdown threatening a
performance cancellation, "Sir" bursts in, dishevelled, exhausted, having been wandering the streets during a raid. He wails that
he cannot appear, he apparently has lost his lines, and when he is encouraged to start his make-up, turns round with a smile
in his make-up for "Othello". Has he completely lost it? Is he pie-eyed?
Only Norman, his long-suffering dresser ( Julian Clary in a revelatory performance) can save him.
Coaxing, whispering encouragement, ignoring Sir's furies and weepings ( and with frequent slugs of brandy to help him keep sane) Norman plods on until Sir isready in the wings, muttering repeatedly his first line about the lords of France and
Burgundy and sending the rest of the cast into nervous unease. But the house is full, the sirens have ceased and Sir moves out onto
the stage with that amazing confidence actors have, where suddenly they are restored to their purpose by the ever-present gods of the theatre.
And can these things happen. Oh, yes they can, dear reader.
Some years ago I was backstage at the RSC in Stratford. John Gielgud was heading a company of three in a Sunday night performance
of a Poetry Festival piece called "William The Conqueror" which was a sell-out .Curtaiun-up was 8.00pm. At 7.30pm, Sir John was nowhere to be found.
Frenzy, it was a catastrophe. I was dispatched by the director into Stratford town to look for him I found the knight gazing quietly into Charles French's shirt shop.
He had known me before this event as a young actor at Birmingham Rep and was reassured. "I can't go on ", he said, "they won't like me. I was asked to be funny, I am not funny, Larry (Laurence Olivier) can be funny, Ralpihe (Ralph Richardson) is funny, but I'm not."
"But you were great in rehearsal and hey will love you, they've come in hundreds to hear you, it'll begreat," I said.
. "Can we go Sir John, it's five to eight?"
As it happens, Gielgud was magnificent. I can still see him standing alone at the end of the evening in a pool of light, his eyes raised out
to the darkness of the auditorium, his hands in the pockets of his dinner jacket, holding his audience spellbound with those haunting words from
Shakespeare's "The Tempest" --"our revels now are ended......."
That evening closed to thunderous applause and many bravos went up. As he passed me on the way to his dressing room, Gielgud
squeezed my hand in the half dark."I told you sparks would fly, Sir John", I said, and then he walked out again with the late Richard Pasco and Barbara Leigh-Hunt for a second and then a third curtain.
Some of that wonderful theatre magic is given to us again by Messrs Clary and Kelly--a symbiotic relationship isn't in it, they were
made for this play. Once again, bravos rent the air at the end of a marvellous evening.
The View From The Stalls
Although The Dresser was first produced as a stage play in 1980, it is perhaps best known from its 1983 film version which starred Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, Edward Fox, Zena Walker and Eileen Atkins - a big name cast. In this new stage version from Theatre Royal Bath and the Cheltenham Everyman, it is Matthew Kelly and Julian Clary who take the two main roles of "Sir" and his dresser, Norman. Whilst the film took advantage of being able to take place in various cities as the production of King Lear which they were starring in was on tour, here it is based very firmly in a single venue, with the impressive set doubling up as Sir's hardly-luxurious regional theatre dressing room and the backstage/stage of the theatre.
It is clear from the start (and the fact that Sir is not present even though the show will shortly begin) that something is amiss. Indeed, as Norman describes it to his wife, he is in hospital having been found ranting and raving in the street. In true theatrical style, however, the show must go on and soon Sir is back with his dresser and so begins the slow process of getting this cantankerous old actor ready for his part as Lear.
Kelly's depiction of the actor, from a different age and coming to the end of his career, is superb even if he is barely recognisable once he has been transformed into the Shakespearean giant and there are parallels between Sir and the character he is playing on stage, both heading towards the final curtain. Meanwhile, dressing the actor is only a small part of Norman's job. He has to coax him, massage his ego and ultimately get him ready to enter the stage in a fit state and Clary does a wonderful job of gently and quietly persuading him to do so, particularly given that he is not generally known for playing such dramatic roles. Only in the final scene does that mask of caring for Norman slip, calling him a thankless old sod, though as this was partly as a result of being slightly tipsy, it could just be the alcohol talking…
It is good to see an accomplished ensemble of actors here in Malvern (in addition to the main roles, there are 10 others making up the cast) in a show about a show, albeit from a different era (it was taking place in 1942). Definitely a show worth going to see especially as the rallying cry of The Show Must Go On is now ringing out loud and clear.