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Any play that contains a show-must-go-on message is bound to resonate in the current climate. That is especially true for the latest production of The Dresser, which is opening a year later than intended. Ronald Harwood’s perennial favourite, inspired by his years spent as dresser to Sir Donald Wolfit, takes place during one evening in 1942, as a touring company treads the boards in the provinces while bombs fall.
The juiciest roles – “Sir”, the volatile, elderly actor-manager, and Norman, his assistant and emotional punch-bag – have gone to some illustrious double acts in the 41 years since the play’s premiere, including Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay in the 1983 film version. Here it is the turn of Matthew Kelly and, in a rare dramatic role, Julian Clary.
Kelly’s white-maned Sir roars and rages at everything from Hitler to his own mortality, but he can’t always be certain which play he is about to perform. An hour before the curtain rises on King Lear, he is absent-mindedly applying his Othello black-face – a moment that fixes the drama in its period as firmly as the wail of air raid sirens. Other details, such as Sir’s blase fondling of the young Irene (Natali Servat), or his speech about how talented men have the right to berate their underlings, still feel regrettably pertinent.
Any power behind Sir’s throne comes from Norman, whose own needs are overlooked along with his sexuality. There’s a cutting poignancy to the way he wanly reminisces about a dear “friend”, or matter-of-factly alludes to an absent company member, branded a “pansy”, who is languishing in police cells.
Even Norman’s stiff upper lip can do nothing to keep the grim reaper at bay. “The time has come to age,” he announces in the first act, while in the second it is the turn of Her Ladyship (Emma Amos), Sir’s longsuffering romantic companion, to lament “how quickly one ages” as she peers into the warped glass of the great actor’s bulb-studded mirror.
Tim Shortall’s set is a model of economy. The action is mostly within the damp, mushroom-coloured walls of the dressing room, where a row of faceless mannequin heads and a single skull (a Yorick, perhaps, from Hamlets gone by) are witnesses to the men’s fraught, co-dependent dynamic. When we switch to the backstage area during a performance of King Lear, the walls ascend to reveal a dark, yawning void subtly accented by Ben Ormerod’s lighting.
Director Terry Johnson marshals the action briskly, but the pace lags in direct proportion to the escalating demands placed on Clary, who never quite advances beyond the cosy. He is comfortable delivering pomposity-pricking asides, as when he deflates one of Sir’s protracted tirades about the evening’s performance by sighing: “I’m pleased you’re pleased.” When Norman needs to flash his claws, fight his corner or exhibit a lifetime’s buried anguish, it’s another matter. “I can be vicious when roused,” he says. Not on this evidence he can’t.
Kelly, though, is often marvellous in a role that requires constant see-sawing between the grand and the pitiful. It would have been easy to slip into a Stars in Their Eyes version: tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be Albert Finney. Instead, Kelly finds fresh nuances in this weary old soul, delivering his lines with a defiant, throaty gargle, and lending vitality to a character taking his final curtain call.
At Theatre Royal Bath until 18 September. Then touring until 19 February.