It is not often that I cast my net in the direction of Bradford, not because I have anything against the city, I worked there for over twenty-five years, but the West Yorkshire public transport system is such that the last train I could catch to ensure my connection, leaves at 10.16pm which is cutting it a bit fine should the show overrun. The Dresser ended at about 10.00pm thus would have just worked but fortunately I had a lift.
I was invited to chaperone a fellow reviewer for the evening as her normal guest was otherwise engaged. I was chosen because she said she thought that I would like the play. How right she was. Because I was a guest I was under no obligation to write about the production but it was so spectacularly good that I chose to do so. Here goes.
There are some people who will forever be associated with the persona which first brought them to the public eye and the two stars of this play, Matthew Kelly and Julian Clary are prime examples. The former, although trained as an actor, entered the public consciousness as a gameshow host on the Saturday night television show Game For A Laugh and later You Bet! and Stars in Their Eyes. Not, you may think, the ideal launchpad for a serious acting career. Similarly Julian Clary first appeared on the box as a stand-up comedian wearing over the top make-up under the soubriquet The Joan Collins Fan Club with his pooch Fanny The Wonder Dog. I find both of these early incarnations difficult to expunge from my memory bank but last night I was rewarded handsomely for approaching the play with an open mind.
Although never having seen Matthew Kelly live, I have read reviews saying how good he was so that was reassuring, Mr Clary, on the other hand seems to have concentrated on his stand-up shows and several pantomimes which led me to worry that his camp may be a little high!
The play chronicles a day in January 1942 on which a Shakesperian actor/manager, only known as Sir, has been admitted to hospital after collapsing in the street during a morning walk as he remonstrated with the German aircraft overhead for bombing the city. The problem was that he was due to take to the stage that night in a production of King Lear. The action takes place in the confines of his dressing room which is cleverly set in a box-like structure allowing for a space on one side to serve as a passageway thus enabling us to see the comings and goings of the other actors.
The play opens with The Dresser, Norman, played by Julian Clary, in discussion with Her Ladyship, Sir’s wife and co-star, to work out what to do. Just as they are about to go visit Sir in hospital to check on his progress he stumbles through the dressing room door and collapses onto the chaise longue. There is then an argument over whether the play be cancelled or the performance go ahead. Needless to say, the show goes on.
Act One of The Dresser is set before curtain-up and Act Two after. As it is a play about the relationships between the characters there is very little else to say about the plot but the dialogue was terrific. I must say that I found Julian Clary a little difficult to hear at first although, judging by the laughter, other members of the audience obviously didn’t have the same problem. I don’t think that I was alone in this as it seemed that the sound engineer turned up the volume of the microphones a tad which made the things much better. They might have given it a bit too much of a boost as at one point there was the slight echo you get just before full-blown feedback kicks in. Fortunately this was instantly resolved and the speech was crystal clear.
The acting throughout the cast was excellent, Her Ladyship played by Emma Amos had the right balance between panic over her husband’s health, and her anger mixed with concern when he had discharged himself from hospital.
Madge, Sir’s secretary and general assistant, Rebecca Charles, was suitably aloof and efficient but showing her tender side towards the end of the play. Natali Servat as Irene, the junior member of the ensemble displayed the ambition of a young actress and the resignation that she would be subjected to demands from Sir which would have been common at the time but totally unacceptable today.
The other males in the cast were Dad’s Army figures, i.e. those who for one reason or another were not in the armed forces defending the country against the Nazis. I especially liked the Corporal Jones/Private Godfrey cross enacted by Pip Donaghy as Geoffrey Thornton, who handled the fine balance between making the audience wonder whether he was a really good actor playing a bad actor, or a bad actor playing himself. He was revealed to be the former during a scene at the end when not in costume.
The play was written in 1980 by Sir Ronald Harwood who acted as dresser for Sir Donald Woolfit for five years and the booming voice of the legendary actor both on and off stage was obviously the inspiration for Sir. Well, it would be, wouldn’t it. The dialogue was full of wit and pathos, illustrating the love between the two main characters even though they were constantly at each other’s throats.
After seeing The Dresser my first reaction when the names of Matthew Kelly or Julian Clary are mentioned will henceforth be to think of them as superb actors. The former seemed to have totally transformed his voice from the sympathetic tone of the gameshow host to the thunderous boom of the Shakesperian actor at full throttle. The strange thing was that even in the more quiet and reflective moments his voice still had a sonorous timbre which could shake the walls. He was hilarious when running through the lines of King Lear, but still suffering the after effects of his collapse, causing him to drift into characters from the wrong play. His portrayal of a man in steep decline touched the other end of the spectrum in its pathos.
Julian Clary was the perfect sparring partner whose range of emotions was supremely handled and whose timing was impeccable, no more than you would expect from a successful stand-up comedian to whom timing is everything, but even so this was good. He also nailed the correct level of campness being obviously gay but not exuberant enough to attract the attention of the police, homosexuality being illegal and punishable by a prison sentence at that time. His sly swigs from a brandy flask concealed in what appeared to be a specially designed pocket in his overall, were a lovely touch, punctuating his moments of stress and frustration.
The Set and Costume Designer, Tim Shortall did an excellent job in creating a cramped space on a large stage, yet one which, with the clever use of lighting, designed by Ben Ormerod, could transform into the backstage area whilst King Lear was being performed. A fake curtain facing the audience, was also a nice touch.
The Director was Terry Johnson who deserves the highest praise.
If you are going to see The Dresser, and you have probably gathered that you most certainly should, there will be no more appropriate place to see it than The Alhambra Theatre in Bradford. I say this because it was in that very theatre that the backstage scenes in the 1983 Oscar nominated film were shot. It was just about to undergo extensive refurbishment and so had the shabby, period look which the filmmakers were searching for.
The Dresser runs until Saturday, 12th February at the Alhambra, Bradford. Further information and tickets are available at https://www.bradford-theatres.co.uk/whats-on/the-dresser but don’t forget to check out the other shows coming up in the near future while you are there.
All photographs by Alastair Muir and provided by Bradford Alhambra Theatre