King Lear

The Dresser


King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

The Dresser is about a poorly actor. He’s famous – a big draw – and the company fears that his illness might preclude him from appearing on stage as the eponymous King Lear (itself a play where the lead character is afflicted by old age and ill health). It’s somewhat ironic, then, that Julian Clary, in the titular role of Norman, has been obliged to drop out of tonight’s performance, and we have an understudy in his place.

But it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good and Clary’s absence provides an opportunity for supporting actor Samuel Holmes to step into his shoes and I’m happy to report that he nails the camp, manipulative Norman with aplomb. How would Clary have handled the role? I’ll probably never know. That’s show business.

It’s 1941 and the London theatres are struggling through the rigours of the blitz. As the minutes tick relentlessly by towards yet another performance, actor-manager ‘Sir’ (Matthew Kelly) is nowhere to be found. His wife, ‘Her Ladyship’ (Emma Amos), due to play Cordelia opposite him, tells Norman that she’s just left him on a hospital ward. Stage manager Madge (Rebecca Charles) wants to call off the show but Norman vehemently stalls her, insisting that the man he has been dressing for so many years has never missed a performance yet. He’ll be there.

Sure enough, Sir comes plodding dutifully in, looking like he’s gone ten rounds with a heavyweight boxer. Of course he’ll go on! If only he could remember which of the bard’s plays he’s actually supposed to be doing tonight … and if only he was still strong enough to carry his wife onstage for her final scene.

Ronald Harwood’s play (memorably filmed in 1983 with Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney) is inspired by the five years that Harwood spent working as a dresser to Sir Donald Wolfit – a situation I can relate to, as I worked briefly as a dresser to Sylvester McCoy, when he was Puck in Theatr Clwyd’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It depicts an age when the term ‘the show must go on’ really earned its stripes, when actor-managers like Sir really did keep the theatrical wheels turning. It’s cleverly staged: a seedy dressing room rises magically to reveal the wings of a theatre, where anxious cast and crew can look out onto whatever’s happening on stage.

While the play feels rather static, full of complex speeches, it’s nevertheless beautifully written and there are some bitterly funny lines to savour, particularly from Norman, who is adept at slaying his adversaries with acerbic one-liners. He also has a faultless memory of every town the company has played in and seems to reserve special contempt for Colwyn Bay (hailing from North Wales, we’re acutely aware of this one!).

The parallels between Sir’s current situation and those of the character he’s depicting are astutely drawn and there’s a brilliant onstage metamorphosis, where Sir, a rambling shivering figure in grubby underwear, gradually transforms into Shakespeare’s king. And of course, there are also the parallels between Lear and his fool – a relationship that’s echoed in the play’s poignant conclusion.

Kelly is terrific in his role – endlessly self-aggrandising but caught in the headlights of his advancing senility – while congratulations should go to Holmes, who must have been rehearsing those lines up to the opening, and who never fluffs one of them.

All the best to Mr Clary for a swift recovery.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Theatre Bouquets 2016




We’ve been lucky enough to see some amazing theatre again in 2016. Here, in order of viewing (and with the benefit of hindsight), are our favourite productions of the year.

Hangmen – Wyndham’s Theatre, London


An excellent start to the year’s theatrical viewing, Martin McDonagh’s play was absolutely superb: funny, frightening and thought-provoking with an outstanding central performance by David Morrissey.

The Girls – The Lowry, Salford

Gary Barlow, Tim Firth and the original Calendar Girls credit Matt Crockett

This was the biggest surprise of the year for us: on paper, it sounded a million miles away from the sort of thing we usually enjoy, and we went along reluctantly. But it was a truly delightful production – flawlessly realised.

The Merry Wives – The Lowry, Salford


Northern Broadsides version of The Merry Wives of Windsor was a rambunctious, irreverent take on the tale, with the inimitable Barrie Rutter clearly relishing the role of Falstaff.

I Am Thomas – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh


A strange and eclectic production, telling the tale of Thomas Aikenhead, the last person in Scotland to be hanged for blasphemy, this was essentially a series of vignettes and musical interludes, with an ensemble taking turns to play the eponymous role.

King Lear – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester


Michael Buffong’s King Lear was a tour de force, a gimmick-free yet undeniably modern production. Don Warrington was well-cast in the central role, but it was Pepter Lunkuse’s Cordelia who really stood out for us. She’s definitely one to watch!

Stowaway – Home, Manchester


Analogue Theatre’s troubling tale of a stowaway falling from a flying aeroplane and landing in the car park of a DIY store was fascinating, depicting a moment where worlds collide and understandings begin to take root. A thought-provoking, political play.

Royal Vauxhall – Underbelly Med Quad, Edinburgh


A quirky and irreverent musical, telling the true story of when Freddie Mercury and Kenny Everett dressed Princess Diana in drag and took her to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London for a night out, incognito. We loved this production.

Wonderman – Underbelly Potterrow, Edinburgh


Based on the short stories of Roald Dahl – and incorporating a true incident from his eventful life – Gagglebabble’s collaboration with the National Theatre of Wales was a sprightly mix of drama and music with a deliciously dark heart.

Cracked Tiles – Spotlites, Edinburgh


This beautifully crafted monologue, written and performed by Lorenzo Novani, was the downbeat tale of a young man who inherits a Glasgow fish and chip shop from his father Aldo. Novani was quite staggering as Riccardo.

Dear Home Office – Underbelly Med Quad, Edinburgh


This was the story of unaccompanied minors applying for asylum in the UK, performed with touching vulnerability by eight refugee boys. The play was an amalgamation of the performers’ own experiences, blended with fictional accounts. A raw and truthful exposé.

The Suppliant Women – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh


It’s a rare thing indeed when you go into a theatre and are treated to something unique – but that is the word that kept coming to us, as we sat entranced in the stalls of The Lyceum, watching David Greig’s production of The Suppliant Women. Truly brilliant.

Grain in the Blood – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh


A real one-off, this was a stark, unnerving chiller, at once contemporary and classical, with dialogue that was taut and ultra-modern in style, all fragments and silences and unfinished thoughts. This was a complex, angular, unwieldy play – a fascinating watch.

Jack and the Beanstalk – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh


By far the best panto we have ever seen, this was a standout production, with fantastic performances from King’s Theatre regulars Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott. It brought the year to a celebratory end.

Susan Singfield

King Lear

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester


Michael Buffong’s King Lear is a tour de force: gimmick-free yet undeniably modern, a fast-paced production that manages, like all the best Shakespeare, to be at once timeless and of its time.

Don Warrington is the eponymous old man, a case-study in futile bluster, self-destructing in his anger at the ravages of old age. I like the way his impotence is emphasised here: he’s never a magnificent, raging tyrant, just an old man who commands deference only as long as he wears his crown. Pepter Lunkuse’s Cordelia is also a revelation: for the first time, I see why she is Lear’s favourite. She’s as stubborn and destructive as he is, as incapable of compromise. She’s neither sweet nor resolute in this production: she’s a headstrong teenager, with the moral certitude only youth or extreme religion can provide. I love the way her lip curls at her sisters; she’s self-righteous and scathing, a Cordelia for the modern age (maybe this is how she was always meant to be?).

It’s a grim play, one of the Bard’s bleakest, and the comic relief from the Fool (Miltos Yerolemou) and Oswald (Thomas Coombes) is most welcome. They’re witty and engaging, pushing just far enough to undercut the tension and provide those all-important shades of light and dark. While we’re on the subject of grim, the notorious blinding scene is played for horror here; there’s nothing subtle in an eye gouging that results in “vile jelly” flying out across the stage into the audience. It’s so shocking there are gasps and groans – and that’s exactly as it should be, I think.

The storm scene is perhaps a little undermined by the fact that the Exchange’s new water-feature has been enthusiastically showcased in almost all recent productions, so what should be astonishing is more, “Oh, this again.” Still, it’s effective – the lightning strikes, the thunder claps and everyone is drenched.

Lear is a dense and complex play; there’s too much of it to cover in one shortish review. Suffice to say, I loved this production: a pacy, confident interpretation that trusts Shakespeare’s words to do their magic.

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield