Press image of Julian Clary and Matthew Kelly in The Dresser at Malvern Theatres

The Dresser at Malvern Theatres: Review

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Ronald Harwood’s entertaining portrait of life backstage is widely regarded as one of the most acclaimed dramas of modern theatre. Directed by multi-award winning Terry Johnson and starring Julian Clary and Matthew Kelly in unusually serious roles, the current tour of The Dresser couldn’t fail to be a hit. We went to opening night at the wonderful Malvern Theatres.

Production photo of Julian Clary and Matthew Kelly from The Dresser at Malvern Theatres
Julian Clary and Matthew Kelly

About The Dresser

The Dresser focusses on an actor-manager known to his company as “Sir”. On the afternoon of his 227th performance of King Lear, Sir ends up in hospital. Doctors fear he is suffering from exhaustion and the cast are horrified that they will have to cancel the performance. Against the odds, Sir appears in his dressing room, having discharged himself from hospital. Everyone remains concerned since Sir is clearly not himself. However, his dresser, Norman, is confident that the show can in fact go on.

The first half focuses on Norman preparing Sir for his performance. On multiple occasions, Sir has to be reminded of both the play and his first line. Kelly moves effortlessly from weeping wreck to arrogant stage star and back again. Clary plays Norman with a large dose of Julian Clary thrown in for good measure. He steers Sir through his pre-performance rituals until moments before the curtain rises, we hear air raid sirens and bombs falling.

The second half moves briefly from Sir’s dressing room to backstage, as they attempt to coax him onto the stage. With the performance started, we then follow the story back in the dressing room as they prepare for the second half. At every point during the performance, there is jeopardy. We are never quite sure whether the performance will start, or whether Sir will make it all the way to the end.

Julian Clary and other cast members rehearsing The Dresser at Malvern Theatres
Rehearsals of The Dresser

The Dresser at Malvern Theatres: Review

Whilst this is far from an action packed play, it easily held my attention throughout. It’s one of those gentle comedies with a serious undertone that requires only a minimal set. The drama is in the crisis that Sir is suffering. Yet we also learn how his trauma impacts on the rest of the cast.

Every character is equally devoted to Sir, with each loving him in their own way. Her Ladyship is his long-suffering partner. Madge has been working with him for 20 years and has long since lost hope of being more than colleagues. Norman himself has been Sir’s faithful servant for 16 years and prides himself on attending to his every need.

The gentle interaction between the characters keeps the audience captivated. During the first half, Kelly is putting on his makeup and transforming from a gibbering, broken man into Shakespeare’s King Lear. Long before he remembers his lines, his strength is growing and he is becoming his old self. Ready to give the audience the performance they are expecting.

I didn’t know the story before watching it and towards the end of the show, I thought the ending was going to be disappointing. Her Ladyship begs Sir to tell the audience that this is his last performance. She has had enough of travelling around the country by train, performing night in, night out. But Sir makes it clear that he has no intention of bringing his career to an end. He can’t and won’t let his fans down. Needless to say, the story doesn’t fizzle out in the way I thought it might. It was a fitting ending to a poignant play.

Press image of Julian Clary and Matthew Kelly in The Dresser at Malvern Theatres
Julian Clary and Matthew Kelly in The Dresser at Malvern Theatres

What you need to know about The Dresser at Malvern Theatres

  • When is The Dresser at Malvern Theatres? Tuesday 18th to Saturday 22nd January 2022. Evenings 7.30pm and Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday Matinées at 2.30pm.
  • How long does the performance last? Around two and a half hours including a 20 minute interval.
  • How to book tickets: Tickets are available to book on the Malvern Theatres website.
  • Is Malvern Theatre Covid secure? The theatre environment feels extremely safe. Everyone was wearing masks inside the theatre itself. In the foyer, masks were worn unless people were eating and drinking. It was a very busy performance.
  • Where will The Dresser be showing next? After finishing in Malvern, The Dresser moves to Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury from Tuesday 1st to Saturday 5th February. Then to the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford from Tuesday 8th to Saturday 12th February.

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