REVIEW: The Dresser, by Ronald Harwood: Cheltenham Everyman until Saturday, September 25 

Emma Amos (Her Ladyship) with Matthew Kelly (Sir) and Julian Clary (Norman)

Emma Amos (Her Ladyship) with Matthew Kelly (Sir) and Julian Clary (Norman) - Credit: Alastair Muir

Katie Jarvis felt too shy to buy Matthew Kelly a drink; but, goodness, he deserved one in The Dresser, an anachronism with plenty of resonances for 2021. 

At the beginning of the second act of The Dresser, in Cheltenham’s Everyman (*spoiler alert*: if you don’t want the reveal, or are of a nervous disposition, put your fingers in your ears and hum) (on the other hand, if you want to avoid possible heart failure, then do read on), a ‘bomb’ drops on the theatre. Or, at least, the humongous, ear-shattering, nerve-shredding noise of a bomb. 

Brilliant. 

So loud. 

So disturbing. 

So evocative. 

Covid is a silent thief in the night. The Second World War was a rampaging, thundering, explosive, heavy-booted gangster of bangs and flashes that frayed peace-of-mind and ripped up bodies.  

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Norman (Julian Clary) has an announcement to make to his auditorium. ‘Would those of you who would like to live…’ 

‘To LEAVE!’ he corrects himself, quickly. ‘To leave!’ Would those audience members who would like to leave please do so quietly. 

The Dresser at The Everyman, Cheltenham

Pip Donaghy (Geoffrey Thornton), Natali Servat (Irene), Julian Clary (Norman), Matthew Kely (Sir) and Rebecca Charles (Madge) in The Dresser - Credit: Alastair Muir

In that lightning moment, you learn several things. The first is that audiences in certain theatres in 1940s London were given the choice: leave for the shelters when the air-raid siren sounded; or do as the cast did and bravado it out. 

The second is that this is a seriously funny (literally) play. 

The third is that it’s an anachronism. A play from a different age.  

Its author, Sir Ronald Harwood, spent nearly five years as a dresser for Sir Donald Wolfit, an actor famed for touring Shakespeare, in the capital and the provinces, during the war. Lear was his apotheosis. Grandeur was his manner, off-stage and on. 

Sir Donald and he are not The Dresser, Harwood writes, in a 1980 essay. 

Matthew Kelly (Sir) with Julian Clary (Norman) in The Dresser

Matthew Kelly (Sir) with Julian Clary (Norman) - Credit: Alastair Muir

WIN! Tickets to see Sophie Ellis-Bextor at Cheltenham Town Hall as part of Cheltenham Literature Festival 2021.

In The Dresser, ‘Sir’ (Matthew Kelly) is a Shakespearian actor – equally grand in manner, unpredictable in behaviour – about to perform Lear. At least, he thinks he’s about to perform Lear. Or is it Macbeth? Or perhaps Othello, he decides, as he paints on his black face. Or, maybe, one of a myriad other tragic heroes he has brought to acclaimed life over the years. 

And, if Lear it be, what exactly are his opening lines? 

Sir is one side of a complete nervous breakdown. Which side, we’re not sure. 

Norman is his hapless helper; his prompt; his reassurance; his tea-maker; his taken-for-granted lynchpin without whom he could not become who he is not. 

~~~~~~~

Matthew Kelly (Sir) with Julian Clary (Norman) in The Dresser

Matthew Kelly (Sir) with Julian Clary (Norman) in The Dresser - Credit: Alastair Muir

Look – I’m not showing off here. (If you would like to see me show off, give me three glasses of rosé and a collection of people who aren’t remotely interested.) 

But I’ve interviewed both Matthew Kelly and Julian Clary. 

*Pauses for effect* 

With Matthew (obvs, I look both these interviews up), we talked an awful lot about his hernia, sustained while dancing on a giant piano. 

With Julian, it was more about his rites (and wrongs) of passage. (His innuendo, btw) (the word ‘innuendo’ always sounding like an innuendo). 

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There are two things I pull out of these interviews for the purpose of reviewing the Everyman performance of The Dresser

Julian’s go first. We’re discussing his varied career: panto, touring, plays, writing: 

‘Yes, but I wouldn’t like to do just one thing. They’re all a means to the same end, I suppose. Ways of expressing myself. You kind of turn yourself into a product, don’t you? It’s all about me, really: writing about myself, or being on stage, or mining my own experiences to turn into anecdotes.’ 

Now Matthew’s: 

‘Well,’ he says, thoughtfully, ‘theatre is a powerful medium and I think it’s underestimated. But it’s certainly not underestimated by government. And because it’s so powerful, and because it’s so visible, we are the first people to be cut.’ 

Matthew Kelly (Sir) with Natali Servat in The Dresser

Matthew Kelly (Sir) with Natali Servat in The Dresser - Credit: Alastair Muir

Did I enjoy The Dresser (directed, I must add, by Terry Johnson)? 

I did. 

Interestingly, whereas the Everyman was packed for the musical Priscilla, it was not so much tonight. Drama-starved audiences might welcome ‘easier’ gains; but this was a deep pleasure. Funny, moving, thought-provoking. 

Emma Amos as Her Ladyship, Sir’s clear-sighted wife, added a superb touch of acidity. 

Natali Servat as Irene, toyed with by Sir, portrays an issue so far not consigned to ‘anachronism’. 

The set was perfect (in my eyes): a combination of austere and evocative. Dated and pertinent. 

Samuel Holmes (Mr Oxenby) with Julian Clary (Norman) in The Dresser

Samuel Holmes (Mr Oxenby) with Julian Clary (Norman) in The Dresser - Credit: Alastair Muir

~~~~~~~

Back to my Matthew interview: 

He loves Cheltenham’s Everyman, he volunteers without my asking (doing my job for me). ‘I’ve only played it once but it has the best acoustics of any theatre I’ve ever been in. And it’s probably the most beautiful as well. It’s a Matcham [Frank Matcham, theatre architect]. And I’m looking forward to coming back.’ 

And we’re looking forward to having you, I say. 

‘Let us know when you’re there, Kate, and I’ll buy you a bevvy.’ 

That was for another play. Still, I wish I’d let him know I was there last night. I was too shy. 

And, anyway, after his ranting, mad, wonderful performance, the bevvy would have been on me. 

The Everyman Theatre is at Regent Street, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 1HQ, box office 01242 572573; everymantheatre.org.uk