Watch out! There are dames about

Satire, tradition, Bollywood, pure filth ... panto's greatest creation can do it all. Holly Williams meets this season's cast
  • @Holly_bops

Christmas is a time when odd things happen in the name of tradition – bringing trees indoors, men coming down chimneys, eating brussels sprouts – yet few are as barmy, enduring or well-loved as the pantomime, and its bloke-in-a-dress star: the dame. Here, five different dames explain why there's nothing quite like it.

The traditional dame

Berwick Kaler is something of an institution in York: he's been starring in the Theatre Royal's pantomime for 34 years. He writes and co-directs it, too. This year, the 66-year-old dons his dame outfits again for Robin Hood and His Merry Mam (13 December to 2 February). The York pantomime has a devoted following: people queued overnight when tickets went on sale in March.

"Panto must be local. For me, it's the last bastion of community theatre. There's things [the audience] look forward to every year, but they're not morons – I go on and say, "It's the same nonsense as last year with a different title", but if it was, we'd have no audience

"I just adore pantomime. My career's taken me all over – film, television, my name above titles in the West End – but I wouldn't mind being remembered as a dame. Everybody underrates pantomime, but it's an art form and not everyone can do it.

"You can be the funniest actor in the world and you put on a frock and suddenly you become very unfunny. It's really difficult to understand what makes a good dame, but it is the face more than anything. Make-up and all that – I've never used it.

"No woman would be seen dead in what I wear on that stage. They're costumes. And they weigh a ton! I wear about 10 or 11 throughout the show, and it's about £1,000 for each.

"The fear for me is, when do I retire? I don't want to go on stage with a Zimmer. I have given a bit of the slapstick to other people, but I still do handstands and trapeze."

The junior dame

He may be only 22, but Lee Redwood, entertainments manager at Bournemouth's Adventure Wonderland theme park, has worked on pantomimes since leaving school at 16. This year, he's also a dame in Cinderella at the Tivoli Theatre in Wimborne Minster, Dorset (21 December to 5 January), playing an Ugly Sister, a role he takes very seriously.

"A lot of people pooh-pooh young dames. Admittedly, there are a lot of young dames who don't do the research and they come out as drag queens, and it doesn't work. I play my character a lot older than I am, which helps. I've always been into panto. As a teenager, I'd read up as much as I could about it: the history and what different people wear.

"My school was an all-boys school, very academic and sporty … I wouldn't say I was bullied, but people would take the mickey. But it's very liberating – as a dame, you can be a bit risqué. I'm actually quite shy but, putting on a frock, loading your face with make-up, putting a wig on – you can go out there and be someone completely different.

"I've got my own wardrobe of costumes and wigs, and I've become quite knowledgeable on a sewing machine; it's a lot cheaper.

"It's definitely not female impersonation. But that's not to say dames shouldn't have glitzy costumes and show their legs. It's a caricature of a woman – there's no high-pitched voices. A bloke in a dress falling over with bloomers going everywhere is funny; a lady doing that is not as funny."

The famous dame

Paul O'Grady brought his alter ego, Lily Savage, out of retirement two years ago to do pantomime and she's back again, playing Widow Twankey in Aladdin (7 December to 5 January). She's appearing on a specially created 1,900-seat theatre inside The O2, making it the largest pantomime in London.

"Twankey is a single mother, she's at odds with the police and the bailiffs, she runs a laundry and she's got an errant, work-shy son – so it's perfect for Lily, she's a real working-class character.

"There's loads of outfits. In the first half, before Twankey gets wealthy, they're a bit Chinese hooker: multicoloured, vile, everything's got tassels. I've gone for the ankle boots – they're practical, comfortable – with the striped tights. That's my nod towards traditional panto. Then, in the second half, when she gets money and goes very Vivian Nicholson, well, then it's all bling.

"There's some pretty fabulous costumes – to look at, not to wear, I have to say. They all weigh a ton. It's no place for sissies, panto, you have to come out and charge around the stage. If anyone wants to lose weight – do panto!

"I get really annoyed when people sneer 'Oh, panto's the last-chance saloon'. It's not, because it's such a difficult thing to do. You walk a very fine line between entertaining the children and the adults. A good panto should be laced with innuendo that children can get a whiff of. If it sails above their heads, then you're laughing."

The alternative dame

David Hodge, aka Miss Dusty O, is well known in London's club scene. But this Christmas she takes her couture gowns to the Leicester Square Theatre, for London's adult panto Dick! (until 20 January), playing a drag-queen dame in a production that's definitely not suitably for family outings.

"It's got all the elements of a traditional panto, the Dick Whittington storyline, but it's the grown-up, filthy version. It's very blue, but it's very funny. It's got every taboo thrown in, and it just kicks them to bits, really.

"'It's behind you' would have rude connotations … .

"People like rude things, let's face it. And throwing me into the equation has added a whole new layer. Audiences are so used to seeing me fronting clubs and DJ'ing. I run a club at Madame JoJo's [in London] called Tranny Shack, and we're bringing the whole club to see Dick! one night.

"The traditional dame is a caricature, not a drag queen. Well, this one, looks-wise, it's me. It's very much high fashion, couture, slick, none of those giant boobs and wishy-washy outfits. They're all Vivienne Westwood. I'm known for that. When people book me, that's what they want: the high finish, three hours in front of the mirror, a wig that doesn't look like it's been slept in."

The Bollywood dame

Antony Bunsee is making his pantomime debut with the south London-based theatre group Tara Arts, in their second Indian-style pantomime, Dick Whittington goes Bollywood (5 December to 5 January), in which Bunsee will be wearing a fat suit and a sari.

"Panto is like Christmas: it's a remembrance of your own childhood. Everyone at Christmas has reference points from when they were kids. This one's slightly different, because it's Tara; it's got a multicultural spin.

"Panto is a rolling stone, it gathers references as it goes along. Any panto you see now will have references to TV, Simon Cowell, The X Factor, all that stuff – so you can have references to Bollywood, too, as long as people get the joke. Our audience – mixed-race, English, Asian, south London, Afro-Caribbean – they'll come along and they'll all get something.

"I totally honour this tradition, I love it. It's unique. Somehow, pantomime reminds me of the Olympic opening ceremony: it's British, it's bonkers and it's the good end of vulgar."