blue jokes, pink knickers: my night as a panto dame

What is the secret of the perfect panto dame? To show the audience that, beneath the falsies and the spotty bloomers, there's a hairy bloke like Matthew Sweet
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rehearsal, Day One: "There are certain rules that need to be observed when performing for sick children," began our director, Dominic, still flushed from October's triumphant coup de theatre, Old MacDonald's Birthday Party. Our script, a version of Robin Hood, was a densely plotted piece involving sock puppetry, magic flip-flops and a Baron's machiavellian plan to cancel the festive season. "We'll be doing the show on the day that some of the kids at Great Ormond Street are finding out they can't go home for Christmas," warned Dominic.

"And the shape of the performance space will be dictated by the position of the power points. Some of the audience have to be plugged in at the mains." A little unconvinced that cavorting around in a frock was going to make anyone feel better, I went to my costume for inspiration: one pair bloomers (canary yellow), one net curtain underskirt, one pair tights (emerald green), one skirt and blouse (pink polka dots), one feather boa (purple), one straw hat with floral decoration, one wig ("Jane Austen style", according to the shop from which it was purchased). The mirror showed me Bo Peep coming out of retirement for one last farewell sheep trial. Adding make-up only brought out an uncanny resemblance to my Auntie Pat. And, as my obligatory falsies turned out to be two fake muscles left over from a Popeye costume, my alter ego was going to have anchors tattooed on her bosoms. I felt nothing like a dame.

I sought out the gurus of seasonal drag and got them on the case. Desmond Barritt, rather better known these days for his award-winning work with Royal Shakespeare Company, is giving his Dame Trot in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Theatre Royal, Norwich. For him, the trick lies in never letting the audience lose the impression that underneath the beehive wig and orange mini-dress, the dame is no lady: "It's not tasteful when women play dames," he argues. "It's somehow not acceptable for a woman to push her bust about on stage. Everyone's got to see it's two balloons down your blouse, and the kids have to know you're a man. If you look too feminine, you'll look like a drag act." "So," he warns me, "don't go to Marks & Spencer and buy yourself a load of French knickers." It's a philosophy that helps him through moments in which questions of taste need to be addressed: "There's a scene where I do a strip, and when I take my corset off, I have a furious scratch. I don't know whether women do this, but there's something about it that has a resonance with both men and women. If you don't have a scratch, you're not doing your job as a dame properly." Barritt maintains that "the only time when panto can become questionable is when you get a principal boy played by a girl kissing a principal girl played by a girl. It can look like a lesbian act."

Barritt's fellow dames are a chorus of agreement: Geoffrey Durham - aka the Great Suprendo - took time out from a pie-strewn rehearsal for the Bradford Alhambra's production of Jack and the Beanstalk to discuss the dramaturgy of damehood. The dame's audience, he contends, should never forget that she's really "a hairy-arsed git", and Brian Cant - Play School supremo, grand old man of children's entertainment and currently playing Widow Twankey in Crawley - is keen that there should be no suggestion of female impersonation: "a drag act is a completely different thing. Nothing about the dame should be particularly vulgar. It shouldn't be a smutty show."

So is all this cross-dressing for juniors politically correct? The panto dame has her knockers, that's for sure. Michael Boyd of Glasgow's Tron Theatre has publicly rejected her, warning that "you're always flirting with misogyny if you've got a male dame." This Christmas, the theatre has sidestepped the panto tradition with Tales of the Arabian Nights, leaving the corset-swapping to the Krankies, down the road in Cinderella at the city's Pavilion Theatre. Rob Swain, associate director of the New Vic, Stoke-on-Trent, is another champion of this new wave of seasonal theatre. He argues that "some of the pantomimes I've seen have been based around slightly blue jokes: they have a separate agenda for adults as well, so that it's almost like watching two plays at the same time. A lot of pantomimes are aimed over the heads of children and at an adult audience - we believe in magical story telling rather than pantomimic tradition."

More worryingly, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, Peter Ackroyd's novel about the original Widow Twankey, suggests a connection between "the ritual humiliation of women in pantomime" and the work of eminent Victorians like Jack the Ripper. It's true that the dame is the product of a 19th- century form that's proved extremely resistant to liberal influences: Aladdin's Chinese setting can often be the pretext for slanty-eyed racism, and until a couple of years ago it was common to see productions of Snow White using the publicity strap, "With Real Live Dwarfs". The genre's reputation has also been besmirched by the atrocity that is the "adult" panto: outrages such as Mike Reid's Pussy in Boots or Jim Davidson's Sinderella, a lowest-common-denominator smutfest that boasted a lot of fishnet stockings and Charlie Drake as Baron Hard-On (arf, arf).

Was there any advice that the elder statesmen of the art could give me to negotiate this ideological minefield? For Geoffrey Durham, emotional realism is the key. He took me through the theory of his interpretation of Dame Trot: "There's a scene in which I discover that my cow has been sold for five beans and I get terribly upset, and if I mess about with that I'm not telling the story properly - you have to play it straight, as if it was any play. If I do it for laughs then I'm selling the kids down the river."

"Try to make it as real as you can," urges Brian Cant. A good tip from a man who honed my movement skills from an early age by encouraging me to grow from an acorn into an oak tree. As Stanislavski concurs, "nine- tenths of the labour of an actor lies in beginning to live and feel the roles spiritually", and my Dame Boilwash has a tragic biography on which her interpreter can meditate: a daughter lost in a washeteria, a spell in the wicked baron's dungeon, and a sad predilection for bursting into song. Desmond Barritt is appalled by the lack of seriousness with which the dame tradition is treated: "Drama students throw up when they hear the word panto. They think it's easy, naive and stupid. But it's as specialised an art as playing Shakespeare." Christopher Biggins, currently wowing Stafford with his Sarah the Cook in Dick Whittington, offered a no-nonsense trick of the trade: "I suggest you find yourself a catchphrase. Mine is, `I'm a little bit on the plump side'."

Back at the panto laboratory, the rehearsal discussions are focusing on the script. Should the Baron be a Cockney, or is a Birmingham accent more intrinsically evil? Should a joke about Jesus sandals be replaced with a more secular allusion? Dominic is adamant on this point, and pacifies our writer with a lie about the bad luck that religious references are traditionally held to bring to pantomime. It's a frenzy of creativity: Peter Brook could have written a book about it. As we go hell for leather on a particularly energetic dance routine to "Rocking Around the Christmas Tree", the words of Desmond Barritt come back to me: "What dress size are you? I've got lots of costumes and you're very welcome to borrow them if you're going to do it again." My left boob pops out of my costume and flies across the room. Next Christmas, I'm having the pick of his frocks.

8 Jack and the Beanstalk, Theatre Royal, Norwich, to 25 January (01603 630000); Jack and the Beanstalk, Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, to 9 February (01274 752000); Aladdin, The Hawth, Crawley to 5 January (01293 553636); Dick Whittington, Gatehouse Theatre, Stafford to 4 January (01785 254653).

don't let your y-fronts show through the tights, say the experts

DESMOND BARRITT

Dame Trot in Jack and the Beanstalk, Theatre Royal, Norwich

"I would never wear a costume that revealed any skin - no shoulders and arms exposed - that seems distasteful to me. You either cover up your legs or you make a virtue of their being hairy. For instance, I would never dream of coming on in an incy wincy bikini, I'd have a Victorian type of thing if swimwear were necessary. I once had to play a harem dancer, so I had a body stocking underneath with a harem costume over the top. But you've got to be careful. It looks dreadful if your Y-fronts are showing through your tights."

CHRISTOPHER BIGGINS

Sarah the Cook in Dick Whittington at the Gatehouse Theatre, Stafford

"I have a yellow crinoline dress, with a blue tablecloth attached which has a plate on each corner piled with eggs and bacon and beans. There's a sauce bottle and salt and pepper pots on the bodice. People ask me if I like wearing women's clothing, but any woman who wears what I wear must be mad."

BRIAN CANT

Widow Twankey in Aladdin, The Hawth, Crawley

"I like a dame to be obviously a man dressed as a woman. There are lots of actors who are marvellous making the dame into a glam lady such as Danny la Rue and Barry Howard, but I like the old style, the Arthur Askey and Jack Tripp style. They just played it as a man dressed as a woman - like Charley's Aunt. If a lady played dame and got a custard pie in the face, it's wouldn't be as funny as a man dressed as a woman getting a pie in the face. It's not funny to insult women. If anybody bumps me in the boobs, its funny, but if it was a lady, it wouldn't be."

GEOFFREY DURHAM

Dame Trot in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Alhambra, Bradford

"I like dames to wear black Chelsea boots and stripy socks - if you start wearing things that are too glamorous you're crossing a taste boundary you don't want to cross; the point of the dame is that it's a man's way of looking at women and having a laugh with it. It's nothing to do with female impersonation. What you have to do is allow the audience in on the secret that you're really a man - if they stop knowing that it's a man the whole thing becomes a rather creepy experience. And there mustn't be any creepiness. I've seen dames that looked like child molesters. You can only introduce an element of glamour towards the end of the show, and it's always got to be a glamour debunked by an undercurrent of being a hairy-arsed git."

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