The Dame is the audience’s access point to the show and the characters; she gives voice to their thoughts and fears. In all the major pantomimes she presents a friendly, non-threatening and heightened point of view. She is a character full of paradox – wise and ridiculous, glamorous and tasteless, witty and slow, educated and naïve, masculine and feminine, loving and ferocious, funny and serious, knowing yet unknowing. She offers constancy and safety, a strange familiarity; she gives the feeling of certainty – the knowledge, if you like, that everything will be all right in the end!
And what are the differences?
Apart from the immediate obvious differences of the story, its situation, the family relationships and so on, the Dame provides a slightly different emphasis in the drive of the stories, nearly always to do with protection and love. She is there as a representation of security. Albeit sometimes an absurd one! The one major exception would be Mother Goose, where the story is about her and her journey of discovery, about the priorities of life, about what is important – materialism and perhaps individualism verses the greater good, the wider community. It’s quite interesting that this is now not performed as often these days, as it was during and after the First and Second World Wars and right up to the Seventies…
How do you personally see the role?
Playing Dame is a privilege and a joy, a unique character in the canon of characters in an actor’s working life. She is nearly always one of the first experiences of a child’s involvement in live theatre. Along with all the other kids who range in age from 12 to 112, of course. If someone, either female and male, were able to recognize some of their own paradoxes from my Dame then I would be extremely happy; if they laugh with me, I would be ecstatic; if they laugh at me, cloud nine!
How have audience reactions - from both children and adults - changed over the years you've played Dame? Interestingly, in some ways not at all; they still enjoy the innocence, the playfulness, the ridiculousness of the Dame, who allows them to have fun without judgment. In other ways they have become more sophisticated, more knowledgeable; they want more polish, higher and ever higher production values. The accessibility of animated stories and CGI usage in films means that when someone must fly, they have to fly; a magic carpet ride must be that – magic! Another major change has been the increasing participation of “celebrities”. The audience wants instant recognition, as opposed to earned recognition. This must lead – and does – to the inevitable hike in ticket prices and then the inevitable expectation that this must mean a better quality of experience. Whereas the contrary, sadly, is often be the case.
How does the trend towards having the Principal Boy played by a young man and not a girl affect the Dame's role?
Well, the increase in this phenomenon obviously affects the on stage dynamic between mother and son in Aladdin or in Jack and the Beanstalk. You tend to be a little more sympathetic to your son if he’s a girl, and a little more physical with your son if he’s a boy, exactly as in real life. However, these are minor in contrast to the audience’s experience, which is significantly different. I am a great traditionalist but as the Great Dame in the sky says: “Nostalgia is not what it used to be…!” Embrace the new nostalgia but only if it’s good!