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Richard Jordan: Creating a great pantomime dame is a Herculean task for an actor

Desmond Barrit. Photo: Courtesy of Let's Talk Magazine
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This year, I will be heading to the Pavilion Theatre Gorleston to see Cinderella, perhaps not the most obvious pantomime destination amid the UK’s smorgasbord of seasonal theatrical offerings. After all, the next step beyond this rural Norfolk theatre is literally into the North Sea.

But then it will be there that an associate artist from the Royal Shakespeare Company will be taking to the stage as an ugly sister. Desmond Barrit is not just performing in the panto, he has also written and directed it.

It is a theatrical coup for the Pavilion even if (I suspect) many of the audience members will have no idea about Barrit’s Olivier award-winning acting credentials.

Watching pantomimes over many years, I have come to realise both the skill and versatility the cast needs to perform them well.

Above all, the dame is the glue that holds the whole thing together. It’s a part which is Herculean for an actor, and where a great frock and wig can only take you so far.

Very early on in my theatre career, I worked backstage on two pantomimes. I was afforded the chance nightly to watch two dames at the top of their games: Ronne Coyles and Colin Devereux. They came from careers rooted in vaudeville and cabaret. Watching them at work, I learned more about comedy delivery and technique than possibly any other shows I have ever worked on.

What may seem disarmingly simple is actually incredibly complex. The dame is definitely a man in a dress, and one who needs to combine a character with strong maternal instinct; a mouth that’s full of broad innuendo and ensure that the joke is always on them.

The great dames also form the bridge between the audience and the action on stage. Sometimes involved in the comedy, and at other times commenting as an observer. The role also requires supreme confidence. Performing all this well is why I believe it’s one of the most challenging roles in theatre.

The dame should not be played as a grotesque. If you push the pedal too hard, the character can become a vulgar and possibly frightening stage presence. However, if played too soft, it feels understated, dull and unbelievable. Pantomime is no different to any other great theatrical form where it will only succeed if we, as an audience, fully invest in it.

Pantomime’s concept can sound ridiculous, making it easy to dismiss. But so too can a man called Nick Bottom having his head turned into that of a donkey by a fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or a gullible monster hitting the booze with two shipwrecked drunkards on a magical island in The Tempest.

In fact there are plenty of throwbacks to Shakespeare to be found in pantomime, in both style and delivery, which is why a Royal Shakespeare Company stalwart like Barrit is well equipped to deliver the goods.

The success of a panto stands or falls on the performance of the dame just as A Midsummer Night’s Dream does with Bottom. If played well, an audience will go along with whatever absurdity is thrown at them.

A real skill of the great comedy actors is pitching their lines to push the boundary of good taste but never make them crude.

Without the legacies of vaudeville, pantomime and farce, we may not have musicals and plays such as The Producers, Young Frankenstein, Avenue Q and One Man, Two Guvnors.

An example of drawing on vaudeville’s influence is when Max Bialystock heads off to visit his little old lady investors in The Producers. In the song, Along Came Bialy he sings, “it’s time for Max to put his backers on their backs”.  Hopefully the audience laughs by this point – rather than being repulsed – because of the relationship the actor has established with them, using all the traditional tricks in the book.

It is a “sink or swim” line where the skill of the actor’s delivery sets up the comedy gold that is to follow in the second act. This possibly makes it the hardest song in the whole show to successfully pull off and the real test of the actor who has been cast.

It’s no different to the dame delivering her cliched and innuendo-laden lines and asides. It is no great to leap to suggest that the actors behind the great panto dames could successfully step in for the actors who excelled at Bialystock, and vice versa. Oh to have seen Terry Scott cast as Bialystock, or Nathan Lane as a dame!

Watching a great dame can feel like shaking hands with Dan Leno, Britain’s first pantomime dame. It is a role that thrillingly links proud performance tradition with modern popular culture, through ever evolving scripts and popular culture references.

Pantomime will always be a subjective art form but it is one that’s vital to the industry and at its best showcases skill as good as anywhere in the industry. We must respect and protect it.

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