The Dresser

Theatre Royal Brighton, Tues 28th September 2021

Playing until Saturday 2nd October


Theatre Royal Bath’s production of the classic 1980 play ‘The Dresser’ was a strange animal, on the first night of its run at Theatre Royal Brighton.

Julian Clary was the titular dresser, Norman, to Matthew Kelly’s Sir in a chaotic ‘King Lear’ in a theatre in the English provinces. Clary’s performance was initially discomfiting in all the wrong ways: he seemed stone-faced, nervous perhaps, and, especially in the first half, gave his audience little to relate to by way of charisma or engagement, as his lines felt rushed. He certainly wasn’t helped by far too many mistimed lines across the whole cast, which created a sense of ramshackle unease.

Kelly, however, brought the production to life when he entered, all booming voice and theatrical bluster, playing an upset, old thespian brought low by poor health and self-pity.

The pleasingly dank set design did a great job of setting the tone, with effective details including damp-stained walls and faded mannequins for Sir’s wigs.

In the second half of the show, the company’s performance of King Lear saw the wider cast bringing a more comedic and entertaining timbre to proceedings, reflecting the joyful redemption of Sir in his element, resplendent in a grand costume and leonine wig, commanding the stage and bringing the house down. The expanded set felt like a revitalising breath of fresh air after an intentionally claustrophobic first half.

And, thankfully, Clary’s performance was far more emotionally resonant in the final stages: melancholic rather than mechanical, he did a fine job of embodying the bitterness and sadness of a grossly unappreciated friend and dedicated employee.

Alternately plodding and rushed, emotive and leaden, moving and befuddling, the core story and wit of Ronald Harwood’s original play, and an engrossing performance by Kelly, made for an enjoyable evening.