Written by Ronald Harwood
Directed by Terry Johnson
The relationship between a performer and their stagehands, their writers and co-stars is an intimate, symbiotic and at times aggravating one. But there is one person who often gets to grips with the thought processes, anxieties, and the inner-most worries of the lead – The Dresser. Some forty years ago, a witty tribute to the endurance of the stage, which echoes Lear to a proficiently accurate level, Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser is a permanent fixture in his writing legacy.
Broken, distressed, and barely surviving the war (and that’s just the cast), The Dresser stages itself during the height of the blitz, during an air-raid while the bombs fly overhead, doing nothing to aid in Sir’s mood as he frantically endeavours to stage King Lear. Tim Shortall’s design has an elegance, clean and though not integral to the production, certainly aids in the pacing of the piece and honing of focus.
Unfortunately, there is a twang of disappointment as performer Julian Clary has dropped out with illness, but understudy Samuel Holmes fills the apron and Brandy bottle with such ease and comfort that those unaware of the title-grabbing name would likely fail to realise the absence. And in truth – this revels in the spirit of the show and does seem oddly fitting.
And having experienced the previous comedy expertise of Holmes with the touring Shrek, little concerns would arise for filling in the rather intense and notable boots left behind by Clary. Concerns of pacing arise in the initial moments, but once the adrenaline ebbs and the audience have faith in his capabilities, Holmes is a pleasure to watch, a fine fit for the role and tough emulating obvious directions intended for Clary, feels autonomous in the role.
Together, Holmes and Matthew Kelly turn the audience to mush, putty as they hang on the words and actions of the show. A meta-textual Lear himself, Kelly’s Sir is stage royalty, a crowd pleaser and dedicated thespian of the craft – slowly undergoing a painful transition to an older phase in life. The lines are blurry to his vision, the hands unsteady, the crown heavy. The weight and adoration for the part speak volumes with Kelly’s performance, capturing the anticipatory humour within Harwood’s script but measuring the pathos and arguably more vital poignancy within the part.
Terry Johnston’s direction maintains the unsentimental grottiness and absurdity of touring productions, of backstage life and those in the industry who are ‘indebted’. Kelly rises to the by-gone age of touring management performers, keeping a tight grip over his troupe, or at least what grip Sir has left. Harwood’s staunch positions of character decisions is part of his strength but leave open the door to a teeth-clenching atmosphere towards mental health and other issues, where humour meets tragedy (in true Shakespearean fashion) but fail to land neatly in either camp.
Signs of the times do resonate somewhat within the texts’ vintage, the character of Irene, though an uncomfortable reality of the profession, does reinforce the limitations of women in the production – though their presence is lifted by both Emma Amos’ Her Ladyship and Stage Manager Madge Rebecca Charles, who after twenty years remains ever loyal to Sir, even at the cost of her happiness.
Unsure of whether to stress the comedy or dramatic elements, landing in an awkward middlingness, ripples of glossed over issues of homophobia, ‘company mattresses’ and blackface leave a mild sour taste even when played for ‘gags’. But despite its age and contemporary unease, The Dresser lands at the feet of antiquity, an appreciated piece which relies on reliable leads – Kelly, an understandably assertive and booming ‘Sir’, and Holmes, who above all odds is an absolute delight, offering a glimmer of the potential future of reliability and integrity.
The Dresser runs at The King’s Theatre until February 19th. Tickets can be booked here.