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Julian Clary and Matthew Kelly to star in The Dresser by The Pianist screenwriter Ronald Harwood at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury


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Entertainers Julian Clary and Matthew Kelly will take on two parts considered among the best in theatre in the county next month.

The pair will perform acclaimed drama The Dresser by Ronald Harwood - who also wrote the script for The Pianist - which was inspired by his memories of working as a dresser for actor Donald Wolfit, which is an affectionate and hilarious portrait of backstage life, in Canterbury.

Matthew Kelly's 'Sir' is served by Julian Clary's Norman, The Dresser Picture: Alastair Muir
Matthew Kelly's 'Sir' is served by Julian Clary's Norman, The Dresser Picture: Alastair Muir

Set in 1942, ageing actor manager, known to his loyal acting company as ‘Sir’ (Kelly), is struggling to complete his 227th performance of King Lear, and it is down to Norman (Clary), his devoted dresser, to ensure the show goes on.

It received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Screenplay, when it premiered in 1980.

Entertainer Julian, who previously had a home in Aldington near Ashford, and Matthew Kelly, whose West End credits include Waiting For Godot and TV credits Benidorm and Moving On, will perform at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury from Tuesday, February 1 to Saturday, February 5.

Matthew says: "The play is based on a real actor called Sir Donald Wolfit. He was an old-school barnstorming actor and they’d do Othello one afternoon, Richard III in the evening, then King Lear the next day. We’re seeing him at the end of his career. He’s a knackered old has-been."

"Norman is the one who holds ‘Sir’ together and actually holds everybody together, with the maxim of ‘The show must go on’. The play is really about Norman."

The Dresser will be at the Marlowe Theatre Picture: Alastair Muir
The Dresser will be at the Marlowe Theatre Picture: Alastair Muir
Julian Clary as Norman and Matthew Kelly as Sir in The Dresser Picture: Alastair Muir
Julian Clary as Norman and Matthew Kelly as Sir in The Dresser Picture: Alastair Muir

Julian adds: "Ronald Harwood, who wrote the play, was Sir Donald Wolfit’s dresser for a while. He is the dresser for ‘Sir’, and thinks he’s running the ship in a way, as dressers often do. They chivvy everything along but they don’t have obvious authority, it’s more subtle."

The roles are such renowned characters for actors, but neither had expected to ever perform them.

"I can’t see myself playing anything until I get the part, then I think ‘Well, they obviously think I can do it so there must be something in that’" says Matthew.

"Most of my life is spent making up my own act and talking about myself, which is why it’s a nice change to inhabit someone else," says Julian. "And I like the feeling of taking on something I might not be able to do. I like the fear."

"It’s such a well-crafted play. You keep finding subtexts in Ronald’s writing and thinking ‘Blimey, that’s clever of him’. And it’s written with great love, I think."

Matthew Kelly in The Dresser Picture: Alastair Muir
Matthew Kelly in The Dresser Picture: Alastair Muir
Julian Clary stars as Norman in The Dresser Picture: Alastair Muir
Julian Clary stars as Norman in The Dresser Picture: Alastair Muir

The pair are looking forward to getting back on stage - though being on tour, less so.

"I feel like a bit of a fraud because people have gone through terrible things and I’ve had a lovely time," says Matthew. "I loved lockdown. I hate shopping so it was nice not doing that."

Julian adds: "I liked the whole slowing down and I fell into a nice routine with the dogs, cooking my husband’s dinner and going to bed early. But then I’m 62 and I’m sure if you were 18 it was tragic."

Though they are looking forward to being at the Marlowe, of which Julian says: "It’s fabulous since it’s been done up. They did a really good job and it’s a beautiful city."

They began rehearsals via Zoom twice a week for three months before starting in-person rehearsals for the tour.

"I absolutely dread it before a tour begins," says Matthew. "The thought of being away from home for so long, but when you do it it’s fantastic. The reason for that is that you’re with people who become like your family. You become incredibly close and it’s a lark."

To book tickets for the run at the Marlowe, click here.

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