Julian Clary stars as The Dresser hits the Brighton stage

As Julian Clary says, he wants to live an interesting life.

Monday, 27th September 2021, 7:05 am
THE DRESSER Julian Clary (Norman) & Matthew Kelly (Sir) Photo© Alastair Muir
THE DRESSER Julian Clary (Norman) & Matthew Kelly (Sir) Photo© Alastair Muir

He has also made it a challenging life, taking to the road opposite Matthew Kelly in the late Ronald Harwood’s classic play The Dresser.

The show heads to Theatre Royal Brighton from September 28-October 2.

“I just think you feel more alive when you are doing something that keeps you on your toes. You have got to keep pushing yourself. After however long I have been around, I just think I would get a bit bland if I didn’t try different things.

“I am just determined to lead an interesting life one way or another. And also it is great that it is a collaborative effort with this. It is not just me talking about me. It is not my name in the title. It is all about the play and I am enjoying the challenge.

“And it is a play which is bleak at times. And I love that. It is not all glitter and tinsel at all.”

Directed by Olivier Award winning Terry Johnson, The Dresser was inspired Ronald Harwood’s memories of working as Donald Wolfit’s dresser as a young man.

Offering an evocative, affectionate and hilarious portrait of backstage life, it is one of the most acclaimed dramas of modern theatre.

It is 1942 and in a war-torn provincial theatre an aging actor-manager, known to his loyal acting company as Sir, is struggling to cling on to his sanity and complete his 227th performance of King Lear.

For 16 years Norman, Sir’s devoted dresser, has been there to fix Sir’s wig, massage his ego, remind him of his opening lines and provide the sound effects in the storm scene. It is down to Norman to ensure that in spite of everything, the show goes on…

And fortunately the show itself does go on. Julian and the company were due to be doing the play around this time last year, but the pandemic put paid to that.

“It was just one of those things. We were delayed and put back. I can’t remember how much notice we had, but we hadn’t started rehearsing. It was quite a long time before we were due to start.”

And the break has been an advantage: “It is such a massive play and there are an awful lot of lines to learn. We spent lockdown, Matthew and I, on Zoom twice a week having line-learning sessions.

“It is beautifully written and it is very perceptive about life in the theatre at that time. I had the pleasure of meeting Ronald’s daughter at one of the shows and it was lovely to meet her. You can sense that the play was written with real people in mind, with a real feeling for all that was going on in the theatre.”

There is a lot that is resonant of the time, but plenty, of course, that speaks to us now: “It is talking about the nature of performing and also confronting our mortality. It is also about battling through adverse circumstances – which is of course relevant now.”

Julian had been looking for a play to do: “I fancied doing a touring production of something, and my agent was fishing around and sent me this.

“The Dresser was something I knew and loved, and I must have seen the film, but it was not something I had really considered.

“Because it is so wordy, I didn’t think I could do it with all those lines, but then I was persuaded. It was just with time and help that I would be able to remember those lines.

“The comedian’s mind works in a different way to an actor’s brain. This was the problem with rehearsals for me. I kept wanting to change the lines and look for the laughs.”

Obviously a no-no – just as in performance, obviously, that fourth wall must be respected in every way.

“Someone’s phone went off and someone had a fit of coughing and someone’s hearing aid started screeching, and I wanted to respond to that! And obviously you can’t. But if you can believe in that fourth wall, it will help with your concentration.”