Sir and Norman

Matthew Kelly as Sir and Julian Clary as Norman. Pictures: Alastair Muir

The Dresser

Malvern Theatres


If ever an actor was made to play a character, then Julian Clary and Norman are it. The part could have been written for him in what is a wonderful double act between him and Matthew Kelly’s marvellous Sir in this memorable and superb production.

Norman is the long time personal assistant, the dresser, to Sir, desperately trying to keep the ravages of time at bay in his aging charge’s failing mental and physical state.

Sir is one of a dying breed, dying being somewhat apt in his case, one of the last of the actor managers with his motley troupe touring the lesser known theatrical backwaters putting on three or four plays in week, tired productions of Shakespeare and the like, then moving on.

And in 1942, amid the air raids when we join his company, it is more motley than ever with all the good, young actors in uniform and Sir struggling along with whoever he could find to fill the parts, his number reduced even further after Mr Davenport-Scott has become a guest of his majesty’s constabulary owing to his then unlawful sexual proclivities.

Sir rages against . . . well anybody and anything, lashing out at Hitler, the Nazis, his actors and, often, Norman, an explosive fury evaporating moments later into frightened, timid insecurity, crushing self doubt, fears of his own mortality. It is a stellar performance from Kelly, who ranges from outbursts to pathos in an instant.

We first encounter Sir when he stumbles in from hospital where he has been taken after a mental breakdown. His mind is swirling around in an unseen wind and you feel dementia beckons with that night’s performance surely is in doubt. He cannot remember what play he is performing, Lear he is told, he can’t remember the opening lines, he mixes it up with all manner of plays from Richard III to Macbeth and then starts to black up for Othello. The madness of Lear is apparent even before his going on stage.

Clary and Kelly are a delight to watch. They not only bring the characters to life, they make them human and add humour to the mix. Clary’s timing is impeccable. His asides, pauses and looks of disapproval, such as when Sir talks about the only actors he can find being "limping, the lisping, old men, cripples and nancy boys” are priceless.

Matthew Kelly as Lear

Emma Amos as Her Ladyship playing Ophelia, Matthew Kelly as Lear and Julian Clary as The Dresser

He has a tale of a friend he once had to fit every occasion, a liking for brandy to see him through the waking hours, a fierce defence of Sir against all comers, unleashing an acerbic manner at times, in what is a lovely, light touch, gentle and understated performance.

There are moments of anger though and even threats when ambitious Irene (Natali Servat) has been alone with Sir.

She is, according to Norman, the company mattress as he tells her with unexpected petulance “I can be vicious when roused” and you could believe him when it comes to protecting Sir, a role he has performed manfully for 16 years.

Sir, appears to find Irene physically attractive, shades perhaps of #metoo, except we discover from Norman that the attraction is not so much sexual as dietary – he is looking for “a moderate eater”.

When playing Lear he has to carry the dead Ophelia in his arms on stage and the current holder of the role, Her Ladyship, his Pussy, (Emma Amos) is becoming somewhat too heavy for his failing strength, so he is seeking a lighter model.

Her Ladyship has a difficult relationship with Sir, the pair are husband and, well, mistress as he refuses to divorce his wife because, according to Her Ladyship, he thinks it might affect his chances of a knighthood, a hope she dismisses with disdain. Her love for him is mixed with bitterness and now, as his health fails, worry.

Trying to run things is Madge (Rebecca Charles), spinter of this and every other parish, the stage manager of 20 years, who has been in love with Sir, unrequited, for all of that time, having to content herself with being around him and seeing him every day.

We meet some of the cast, there is the elderly Geoffrey, (Pip Donaghy), once retired but back treading the boards, somewhat unsteadily, and promoted to fool after the unfortunate affair of Mr Davenport-Scott. He can’t sing and is warned not to get in Sir’s light or move when he speaks.

Then there is the limping Mr Oxenby, (Samuel Holmes), who has written a play Sir has refused to read so is as uncooperative as he can be.

Another star of the show is Tim Shortall’s set and costumes. The set is a wonderful piece of stagecraft a dingy dressing room which lifts into the flies to leave backstage at some small regional theatre with lighting and sound boards, thunder sheets, wind machine and timpani all overseen by Madge. A clever addition is a narrow velvet curtain frontage which drops down, lit only by a single spot for announcements and Lear’s curtain calls, a set all helped by Ben Ormerod’s lighting.

The play may be fun, with laugh out loud moments, often at Clary’s pointed comments or asides, or Kelly’s rantings, but this is no comedy with its poignancy and bittersweet moments and an ending that is both moving and sad.

We have all known Kelly is a fine actor, and he excels again here, making Sir his own creation. The revelation is Clary who gives the sad Norman, with his own unrequited love for Sir, a quiet dignity in a remarkable performance.

Beautifully directed by Terry Johnson, The Dresser runs to 22-01-22

Roger Clarke


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