Julian Clary and Matthew Kelly star in 'a theatrical gem' at Cambridge Arts Theatre

Matthew Kelly as Sir and Julian Clary as Norman in The Dresser.

Matthew Kelly as Sir and Julian Clary as Norman in The Dresser. - Credit: Alastair Muir

Angela Singer reviews The Dresser starring Matthew Kelly and Julian Clary at Cambridge Arts Theatre.

Julian Clary as Norman and Matthew Kelly as Sir in The Dresser.

Julian Clary as Norman and Matthew Kelly as Sir in The Dresser. - Credit: Alastair Muir

They have bombed the Theatre Royal Plymouth, laments the great Shakespearean actor: “I made my debut there.”

Says his dresser sympathetically: “They weren’t to know.”

Ronald Harwood’s witty play is set in 1941, during the Blitz.

His characters are a company of actors touring the provinces.

Emma Amos (Her Ladyship), Matthew Kelly (Sir), and Julian Clary (Norman) in The Dresser.

Emma Amos (Her Ladyship), Matthew Kelly (Sir), and Julian Clary (Norman) in The Dresser. - Credit: Alastair Muir

The leading lady, known reverentially as Her Ladyship – played naturally, beautifully and delicately by Emma Amos – wants her husband to stop strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage.

“I’m sick of it,” she says. Sick of Sundays waiting on draughty stations, sick of sleeping in grimy lodgings, sick of having to eat cold food. And all to read that you are inadequate or merely the best of a poor supporting cast.

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This is a compelling glimpse into the life of the touring troupe.

They are the great unthanked.

Matthew Kelly as Sir in The Dresser.

Matthew Kelly as Sir in The Dresser. - Credit: Alastair Muir

Matthew Kelly’s actor-manager, known as Sir, whose self-belief must outshine the sun or he would never have the courage to go on, sneers at a fellow actor who unlike him has actually been knighted.

“He never put a toe outside London.”

Matthew Kelly is magnificent as the great thespian. His is a towering, powerful performance.

You expect any moment to see him play Lear – the role his aged, tired but still bombastic character will perform despite now having to be reminded of his lines and occasionally of which play he is about to go on and do.

Julian Clary as Norman in The Dresser.

Julian Clary as Norman in The Dresser. - Credit: Alastair Muir

Julian Clary, as Norman the dresser, is the Clary audiences know and have loved since the 1980s.

We have enjoyed his delivery for decades but he evolves into his character. Our hearts are with the loyal servant – nanny and nurse to an actor with mountainous self-obsession.  

There are no weak performances here – it's a very strong supporting cast.

Matthew Kelly as Sir and Julian Clary as Norman in The Dresser.

Matthew Kelly as Sir and Julian Clary as Norman in The Dresser. - Credit: Alastair Muir

Emma Amos as Her Ladyship is our link to reality in a world where the company is so adept at beguiling audiences that that they have long ago convinced themselves that their lives are just as they would like them to be.

It might have been a wistful play, but so sharp are the performances here and the writing that we the audience were chuckling all through it.

There is also the delight of being taken behind the scenes – ah so this is how theatre works!

Plaudits must go to director Terry Johnson for a fast-paced, utterly enchanting show – theatre as theatre should be – and to Tim Shortall for a clever set, which takes us on stage, back stage and under the stage. A theatrical gem.

The Dresser can be seen at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, October 16.

Julian Clary as Norman in The Dresser.

Julian Clary as Norman in The Dresser. - Credit: Alastair Muir

Matthew Kelly as Sir in The Dresser.

Matthew Kelly as Sir in The Dresser. - Credit: Alastair Muir


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