Review: The Dame (Park Theatre)

”Blue Peter”’s Peter Duncan stars in this one-man deconstruction of a dame performer

Peter Duncan in The Dame
Peter Duncan in The Dame
© Robert Workman

There's no doubt that Peter Duncan makes a splendid entrance as a dishevelled dame returning to the dressing room after a show. In full panto regalia, he joshes the audience, bursts into song and delivers saucy double entendres.

But the dame's fun-packed facade doesn't hold up for long. In this monologue, written by Duncan's daughter Katie Duncan, we quickly realise he's actually a tired and emotional pantomime performer. Off comes the costume and make-up, leaving a man in women's underwear reluctantly confronting the demons of his past, and the uncertainties of his future.

The play draws in part on the Duncan family's rich theatrical history – Peter's parents were both music hall artists who embraced the relentless slog of three seaside shows a day, plus transporting and setting up stages on tour. And playwright Katie has grown up seeing her own father's successful career as an actor, presenter and panto star, which she channels into this show.

Father and daughter have worked on this project for two years, and it's clear they have dug deep to reveal the person left underneath when an actor leaves the stage. It also examines the history of a dame whose cheerful exterior as an entertainer conceals appalling childhood traumas.

Always engaging, Duncan radiates warmth and bonhomie, and with his robust singing voice he captures the energy and vitality needed by any music-hall artist to survive the rigours of the lifestyle.

The leaps back and forth through time are cleverly managed by Duncan, but make for a jerky feel to parts of the play, which loses some of its clarity in the latter stages. And while there are poignant and delicately nuanced moments – especially as he recalls losing his mother in the cruellest possible way – much of the show is performed at full throttle.

Perhaps this is because in a one-person show there must always be a fear of losing the audience's interest, but Duncan need have no anxiety on this front – he is a thoroughly engaging performer who could afford to relax a bit more. Katie Duncan's writing is warm and witty, and if the promise of redemption that closes the play seems far-fetched, it's a lovely idea for all that.

James Smith's lighting design signposts the changes of time and shifts of mood very effectively, while Peter Humphrey's set carefully captures the tawdry, run-down feel of an old-stager's dressing room. Fizzing with a mix of energy and pathos, director Ian Talbot's production serves as a tribute to panto Dames everywhere.