WORTH A LOOK?: ****
WHEN?: Saturday 30 October (matinee), back on tour from 18 January 2022 until 12 February 2022
The couple behind us are singing ‘Hitler, has only got 1 ball’ to the music evoking World War Two setting the scene for this 1942-set piece about the relationship of a lead Shakespearean actor and his camp dresser.
- Read on for reasons including how to see Clary and a production of his children’s book series The Bolds before the end of the year
5 years ago we saw the West End production of this classic comedy starring Reece Shearsmith and Ken Stott and the difference here is our surprise at just how convincing Matthew Kelly was in a role that demands its actor to persuade us that he is both on the verge of a nervous breakdown and capable of giving us his 229th King Lear.
Kelly looks suitably exhausted as he enters the stage as character ‘Sir’ and it enables the production to step up a notch after a period where Clary’s dresser occasionally stumbles over his lines and proves that he is a better comedian and writer – we last saw him in imperious form at Pantoland at the Palladium – than an actor (Le Grand Mort, Trafalgar Studios 2).
The joy in Ronald Harwood’s play is the dynamic between the pompous luvvie and his devoted dresser perhaps best exemplified by Sir’s distress at the Nazis bombing Plymouth’s Grand Theatre where he made his showbiz debut and the dresser Norman’s retort: ‘They weren’t to know.’
Elsewhere there’s much behaviour which seems inappropriate now but would be less frowned up in 40s Britain as Sir mistakenly blacks up for Othello, bemoans the weight of his partner ‘Her Ladyship’ and co-star who he has to lift and the playful touching of the young actress who aspires for more.
The play’s heart is probably best represented by stage manager Madge (here played touchingly by Rebecca Charles) who has not married and has instead devoted decades of her working life to the Shakespearean company led by the ridiculous yet charismatic Sir.
Samuel Holmes (Mrs Henderson Presents, Noel Coward Theatre) impresses as the headstrong up and coming writer and supporting actor with ideas of his own and unwilling to compromise representing the change that Sir is so unwilling to embrace.
Anyone with a love of theatre will enjoy the ‘show must go on’ spirit embodied here as well as the talk of the ‘half’ and the ‘quarter’ and the tradition of mention of ‘the Scottish play’.
The world of repertory theatre companies bringing culture to the provinces imbued with a sense of service may be long gone but here it is writ large and Clary and Kelly wring many laughs from a fertile script which offers us a behind-the-scenes look at the generation of the storm in King Lear in which Sir places so much faith.
Emma Amos as Her Ladyship brings concern for Sir’s future while also wondering whether she made the right decision to devote her recent years to a man unhappily married to someone else at the expense of her career.
We’d not seen Kelly onstage before and his Sir is an unexpected triumph while we kept wishing Clary’s character would be as camp as he is a comedian to spark even more laughs.
It’s perhaps an unfair criticism because this is a play set in 1942 and he’s playing a role that is already camp yet we were never quite convinced that as his character got more drunk and threatening with greater deployment of the word ‘Duckie’ that he was in any way scary.
We’re big fans of Clary’s and look forward to his Pantoland this Christmas at the Palladium as well as the arrival of the play of his children’s book series The Bolds in London. Tickets Kelly and Clary return to star in The Dresser on tour early in 2022. Details of the tickets link below.