Sarah Sands: Is any woman man enough to play Miss Trunchbull?

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The Independent Online

The inspired casting of Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull in Matilda, one of the year's greatest performances, owes something to the RSC's employment policies. Casting has to be blind to sex and race. Now I am not sure whether a woman could ever play the role again – or, indeed, anyone else but Mr Carvel. It is his role, in the same way that Mark Rylance is now synonymous with Johnny "Rooster" Byron in Jerusalem. The soft-voiced, sadistic, sports-mad headmistress with her leather coat and whistle is a glorious creation.

Dennis Kelly, who adapted the book, is true to its cruelty and violence, and the director, Matthew Warchus, told me at the Evening Standard theatre awards last week that he did not want the show to be a pantomime. Carvel is too menacing to be music hall and does not try to befriend the audience, although he does seduce them.

Yet Matilda does follow some pantomime traditions. Good triumphs over evil and the show is dominated by his female impersonation. It is in the spirit of commedia dell'arte, and perhaps a sign of the times that the two theatrical smash hits of the year, One Man, Two Guvnors and Matilda have something of the street carnival about them. The creative team behind Matilda even considered using puppets rather than children. Commedia dell'arte took root in response to political and economic crises of the 16th century. Passing round a hat raised more money than performing to an empty theatre.

This Christmas, the public needs cheering up. Put away your subtlety and angst. We want laughter and comforting resolution. For this season, Hackney does not evoke social deprivation but panto. And we may be on Skid Row, but we have not lost our twin British talents for cross-dressing and double entendres, being a nation with no rivals in the arena of sexual disguise and repression. Cross-dressing began as a theatrical response to the social convention that it was unseemly for women to appear on stage. Shakespeare wrote in some superb cross-dressing heroines: Viola in Twelfth Night, Rosalind in As You Like It – boys playing girls dressed as boys.

In the Victorian age, theatre again reflected a social issue. Women were able to play their own sex, and men reacted to this by creating the female impersonator. The humour lay in the depiction of women as old, ugly and sexually predatory. If one were feeling humourless, one might trace society's fear of and derision towards older women to Widow Twankey.

I don't think the French will ever embrace the pantomime dame as we do. Neither do they have the English speaking gift for "glamour drag". Mae West is said to have borrowed her line "come up and see me some time" from the great American drag queen Bert Savoy. A better line was his last when, caught in a storm, he observed: "Goodness, ain't Miss God cuttin' up?" He was struck down by lightning.

Cross-dressing is not just for theatre folk. The aristocracy have always been mad for it, to the point where it must surely appear in Downton Abbey. The butchest – army officers, firemen, rugby players – seem to find it the funniest: I understand many of our Royal Marines cannot resist stockings and tutus in their leisure time. Christopher Hitchens makes a convincing case for the influence of boarding schools on our culture. All I know is, if I see a great cross-dresser, I am under an English heaven.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the 'London Evening Standard'