Julian Clary discusses his role in The Dresser, on now at the Cambridge Arts Theatre
Though more widely known for his innuendo-laden stand-up, Julian Clary is currently appearing in a play called The Dresser alongside Matthew Kelly at the Cambridge Arts Theatre.
Starting its run yesterday (Tuesday) and continuing until Saturday (October 16), The Dresser offers an evocative and affectionate portrait of backstage life. Set in 1942 in a war-torn provincial theatre, the play tells the story of an ageing actor manager, known to his loyal acting company as ‘Sir’ (Kelly), who is struggling to cling on to his sanity and complete his 227th performance of King Lear.
It is down to Norman, Sir’s devoted dresser, to ensure that the show goes on. Norman is played by all-round entertainer Julian Clary, who has enjoyed success in television, radio, film, writing, and stand-up comedy.
Julian spoke to the Cambridge Independent shortly before departing from Brighton on his way to Norwich, another stop on the nationwide tour. “It’s going very well,” he says. “We’ve settled in now and everyone’s leaving us alone – the director’s gone and the creative team so we’re just bobbing along nicely.”
The star, who used to live at Goldenhurst, a house in Kent previously owned by Noël Coward, is pleased to be back working again after the past year and a half. “It’s like putting on an old glove; it feels very comfortable,” he observes.
“For a lot of people coming it’s their first time back to the theatre so people are cautious but excited and it’s what we’ve been deprived of doing for such a long time – it’s lovely to be back.”
He notes that The Dresser seems to be going down well with audiences. “Yes, they seem to be enjoying it,” says Julian, 62, “it’s a wonderfully written play and I think it’s very engaging. It’s difficult to say when you’re doing it yourself but they seem to be enjoying it.”
On what drew him to the play and to the part of Norman, Julian says: “I was looking for something very different to take on, rather than my usual stuff. I did some acting a few years ago so it took a while for this play to come to my attention, and then it was delayed obviously with lockdown.
“It’s a wonderful part Norman; he’s very complex and he’s funny and bitter and it’s all about the relationship between Norman and Sir – their inter-dependent, fractious relationship. It was just the challenge I was looking for.
“I wasn’t sure if I could do it, for a start, it’s such a lot to learn, but Matthew and I spent lockdown doing Zoom calls twice a week for months on end so we got all the script under our belt. It’s nice and meaty – it’s nice to get your teeth into something like this.”
Julian adds: “It’s a beautifully crafted play, done with great love and sincerity by us, and I think it’s very transporting and ultimately an uplifting experience.”
Despite being well known figures in the world of entertainment, Julian and Matthew were not really acquainted before getting together to work on the play. “I think we’d met at some showbiz do but I didn’t know him at all,” says Julian. “Fortunately we get on very well and I’m full of admiration for him. He’s very scary on stage when he’s in full bellow mode. It’s quite something.”
As well as learning the script for The Dresser with his co-star during lockdown, Julian also found time to write a couple of books and a stage version of The Bolds, his popular series of children’s books, which, he reveals, “is going to go on this Christmas at the Unicorn Theatre”.
Julian, who is scheduled to finish the delayed second leg of his most recent stand-up tour Born to Mince next spring, continues: “Like everyone else, I was at a bit of a loss at home but I got into a routine of walking the dogs, doing some writing, cooking... I quite liked it, I didn’t mind lockdown at all, but I had had enough by the time it finished.”
The Dresser is on until Saturday at the Cambridge Arts Theatre. For tickets, visit cambridgeartstheatre.co.uk.