'Tis the season to be jolly… a sentiment embraced on stages up and down the country, as theatrical fare gives way for a month to the bonkers British tradition of pantomime. And no role more exemplifies panto's silliness, naughtiness and good-hearted festive cheer than the dame.
Sticking a great big man in an even bigger frock is an odd ritual when you stop to think about it. But even if it seems old-fashioned – the dame harks back to the Victorian era, when she was a vehicle for star music-hall performers – it's a custom that is still going strong. Of the hundreds of pantos being performed around the country this Christmas, most still have, at their heart, a chap in pantaloons and a wig. Those absurd costumes, octave-swooping voices and a face full of slap somehow make jokes funnier, and dames sweep children up in the magic while lacing proceedings with innuendo for the grown-ups.
But just how important is the physical transformation? How does an ordinary bloke become Widow Twankey or Mother Goose? There are certain costume items and make-up looks that are essential – the lace-up boots, the brightly coloured wig; the garish eye shadow, the rosy cheeks. And the point has never been to become a convincing woman. It's a ridiculously gaudy, often grotesque, version of woman.
In an age of bigger-budget, more spectacular, arena-sized pantos, the costumes are getting barmier, too: Christopher Biggins (see overleaf) will fly on stage as a chandelier this year, while Joe Meloy's Twankey even manages to festoon his wig with some washing.
We met three performers to find out more about their transformation from regular men to larger-than-life ladies. And it turns out that as soon as they're wielding that lipstick, there's just no stopping their inner dame from barrelling out…
Panto dames: before and after
Panto dames: before and after
1/7 The veteran dame
Christopher Biggins says: 'I think this could be my 38th year as a dame, and I've not changed at all. The make-up is very easy, funnily enough. It takes me 20 minutes; I do my own. It's part and parcel of getting ready.'
2/7 The veteran dame
'Simplicity is best. Luckily I don't play an ugly sister – because I'm far too pretty – so I just do a very pretty make-up. A base, eye shadow, rosy cheeks and lips, and a beauty spot.'
3/7 The veteran dame
Christopher Biggins as Mrs Smee in Peter Pan
4/7 The Olivier-nominated Dame
Clive Rowe says: 'Mother Goose is the Hamlet of pantos. It's the one pantomime that is actually about the dame and it's a big part for the dame as well.'
5/7 The Olivier-nominated Dame
Clive Rowe as Mother Goose in (nominated for his 2008 performance)
6/7 The adult dame
Joe Meloy says: 'Adult panto is very naughty. It's in your face. But it's a proper panto; it's the traditional story, but for adults. And the bar's open all the way through!'
7/7 The adult dame
Joe Meloy as Widow Twankey in A Lad in Tights
The veteran dame
Mrs Smee in ‘Peter Pan
"I think this could be my 38th year as a dame, and I've not changed at all. The make-up is very easy, funnily enough. It takes me 20 minutes; I do my own. It's part and parcel of getting ready.
"Simplicity is best. Luckily I don't play an ugly sister – because I'm far too pretty – so I just do a very pretty make-up. A base, eye shadow, rosy cheeks and lips, and a beauty spot.
"They want to see you – they want to see Christopher Biggins; some dames make themselves so grotesque, you can hardly work out who they are.
"I never go out in between matinée and evening shows; I stay in the make-up. I have something to eat, go to sleep, and when I wake, I just tart up the make-up.
"I like to wear a different costume every entrance. A man my size is wonderful to see in different costumes – I'm really just a clothes horse. I have a cupcake costume, I'm playing Pamela Anderson in a swim costume, and in the finale, I fly in as a chandelier. To see someone my size fly is fantastic.
"I have a phobia of the costumes being in my dressing room – I always have a quick-change room in the wings. I put the make-up on and a leotard and go [to the wings], and don't return [to my dressing room] till the interval. I actually find the costumes rather frightening. They take up so much space that there's no room for me!
"We used to have women who'd play men, the principal boy, but that's died out. Nowadays children can't ignore the fact that it's an adventure story about Dick Whittington or Aladdin, and these characters are stronger if played by men. It is a great shame.
"I'm uncomfortable with women playing dames – people laughing at a real woman is a bit sad. The comedy is that it's a man, dressed up as a woman, doing manly things! It's bizarre. You could get away with murder."
Christopher Biggins appears in 'Peter Pan' at Cliffs Pavilion, Southend-on-Sea (southendtheatres.org.uk), to 11 January
The Olivier-nominated Dame
Clive Rowe (pictured above)
Mother Goose in ‘Mother Goose’ (nominated for his 2008 performance)
"Mother Goose is the Hamlet of pantos. It's the one pantomime that is actually about the dame and it's a big part for the dame as well.
"I can't try to recreate what I did six years ago; I just do my best, have fun and hope the audience has fun. If I don't get nominated [for an Olivier] this time, that's all right.
"Panto is no less an art form than anything else. It takes truth, it takes dedication, you have to be multi-talented – you have to sing, dance and act. It's a tradition and you have to understand that you are working with children from five to 95. Virtually no other form of theatre is keyed towards the whole family experience.
"Dames are organised chaos. If you're having fun, people will have fun with you. And truth, truth, truth, truth, truth. Each dame is different – there's no rule of thumb – but you have to be yourself within that frock, there has to be a lot of you within it.
"I play it as a bloke in a frock. I try to be what I think a bloke thinks a woman is like. Nice blokes, not horrible blokes, obviously. Each to their own – you can play it in Doc Martens and a beard.
"I do my own make-up; it takes about 25 minutes. It's an adaptation of the first make-up I ever used as a dame. I would say it's almost a clown make-up. The process of putting it on puts me in the right state of mind to do the show.
"Doing panto does take some of the fun out of Christmas, because I've only got one day off and I'm very, very tired. But, equally, I get to celebrate Christmas for seven weeks.
"The dame is always within me. I stand at the side of the stage and she walks on stage. I don't try to control her and I think of her as a different person. Now I've done nine or 10 pantomimes, I just let her go and she's off."
Interview by Kate Youde
Clive Rowe appears in 'Mother Goose' at Hackney Empire (hackneyempire.co.uk), London E8, to 4 January
The adult dame
Joe Meloy (pictured above)
Widow Twankey in ‘A Lad in Tights’
"Adult panto is very naughty. It's in your face. But it's a proper panto; it's the traditional story, but for adults. And the bar's open all the way through!
"I don't have dressing rituals per se, but you do go through a transformation. Obviously I'm just quite a normal bloke – then I put on a dress and she comes out… soon as the tits are on, the dress is on, it's a different person.
"I'll be doing my own make-up. I love putting on the slap – that means it's go-time. It's not at all about trying to be a convincing woman. In fact, because you're so not convincing, you can be a bit more gross with it.
"The outfit I'm wearing here is my main costume, but at one point I have a very quick change into Material Girl-era Madonna – a pink dress, Marilyn Monroe wig. It gets hectic: I've got 27 seconds to change. It's all Velcro, so everyone else is there, ripping off my dress, while I'm changing my wig.
"I remember wanting to be a dame when I was about eight. It's a pleasure – especially in an adult panto; it's so much fun.
"Last year, I played an ugly sister and we were all just vile; Twankey's nice, but completely batty. She is a bit grim to look at.
"We have a drag queen in our show, playing Aladdin, hence the name A Lad in Tights: we've got a boy playing a girl, playing a girl playing a boy… it gets a bit confusing.
Twankey is an old woman, which is bizarre, as I'm only 24 myself. I've got a line where I go "Thirty-nine years old! Working my fingers to the bone!" – and I look at the audience and go, "I'm not, I'm actually 24 – call me." You can do that, because it's adult panto, it's very camp – I go into [a] Julian Clary-esque persona. Actually, with the make-up on and the wig on, I look older anyway."
Joe Meloy appears in 'A Lad in Tights', Upstairs at the Prince of Wales, London WC2, to 4 January
All portraits by Dan Burn-FortiReuse content