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Is the iconic panto dame role a thing of the past?

Ben Harlow will play Widow Twankey in Aladdin at Blackpool Grand. PHOTO: Sean Conboy
Ben Harlow will play Widow Twankey in Aladdin at Blackpool Grand. PHOTO: Sean Conboy

Pantomime has given generations of theatre-goers their first taste of the magic of live performance. The bright colours, madcap characters, slapstick humour and audience participation are a key part of the festive period for many families and theatres regularly see their biggest audiences of the year in panto season (oh, yes they do...).

The British pantomime developed from traditional Mummers Plays with influences from European stage traditions such as commedia dell’arte. In each there were elements of improvisation, bawdy comedy and good triumphing over evil in adaptations of well-known stories. And since the earliest days they have included gender role reversal: the principal boy has commonly been played by a female actor while the larger-than-life Dame is usually a man.

Great British Life: Preston-born John Inman - best known for his role as Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served? - was one of the country's most celebrated pantomime dames and Ugly Sisters Preston-born John Inman - best known for his role as Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served? - was one of the country's most celebrated pantomime dames and Ugly Sisters

It’s a role in which some of our finest performers have excelled – Les Dawson, John Inman and Paul O’Grady were among the star names who would guarantee their pantos were playing to sell-out audiences.

But despite the history and heritage of men performing in dresses, it still provokes strong reactions from some people and there have been vocal protests at drag queen story time events in libraries across the country. At the same time, Ru Paul’s Drag Race – a reality show searching for a new drag star – and Mrs Brown’s Boys – in which comedian Brendan O’Carroll plays the title role – continue to attract large television audiences.

And in Clitheroe’s pantomime this year, there will be no dame.

Owen Phillips, the writer and director of Red Riding Hood of the Ribble Valley at Clitheroe’s Grand Theatre, says: ‘As a general rule, we avoid having a dame for a number of reasons. We attract a lot of school audiences and we focus on what children enjoy and engage with. In my experience I’ve found that the dame is usually more for adults, falling back on double entendres and providing a level of humour that goes over kids’ heads, and we don’t want to lose the interest or attention of our core audience for the sake of a few adult jokes.

‘I absolutely don’t object to the idea of a pantomime dame – there are countless pantos where a dame works really well and there are fantastic actors who are brilliant at it. But the crucial thing is that it’s got to be done really well. It’s a more nuanced role than people might realise, because the performer has to skilfully move past the outdated idea that a man dressed as a woman is something inherently funny to ‘laugh at’.

‘If it’s not done well, it can turn audiences off and that’s a big price to pay. We’ve actually attracted audiences from further afield across the North West, who would rather the pantomime eschew the dame in favour of keeping a younger audience fully engaged.’

And Owen added: ‘I’ve found that, often, if you have traditional panto roles with a dame, the show may not pass the Bechdel test (a measure of the representation of women in film and theatre) because there are fewer women playing female roles.

‘We try to include plenty of strong female characters and focus on positive messaging, particularly by flipping old stereotypes on their head. Why does the prince have to save the princess? She can save herself, or save him! Or they can work together – which makes for a great family show that everyone can enjoy. And, at the end of the day, that’s really what we’re striving for.’

Great British Life: The Aladdin cast includes two first-time panto performers: Moo Yi Kim as Princess Jasmine and Mervin Norohna as Aladdin. PHOTO: Sean ConboyThe Aladdin cast includes two first-time panto performers: Moo Yi Kim as Princess Jasmine and Mervin Norohna as Aladdin. PHOTO: Sean Conboy

That’s the aim at Blackpool’s Grand Theatre, too, but their production of Aladdin will feature a traditional dame.

At 6ft 6in, Ben Harlow is an imposing figure and even more so when he’s in his heels, buxom pink dress and tall yellow wig. He was born in Birmingham but has recently moved to Southport and has appeared in a dozen pantomimes, but never before as the dame.

‘I’m looking forward to it enormously,’ he said. ‘Panto is always great fun, especially in Blackpool where there’s a great atmosphere in the theatre and a great energy and buzz from the Blackpool audience.

‘I am aware I’m following a great and proud tradition of dames and it is a real challenge. I understand that some people have different opinions but I think the role of the dame is a bit wacky and bonkers, but always with real heart. I am not a drag act, and I am not trying to be – that's a wonderful genre and I have the utmost admiration and respect for those guys.’

Ben will joined in the cast by Michael Robert Lowe as the Emperor, Amy Perry as the Spirit of the Ring, and Liam Morris as the Genie. Moo Yi Kim as Princess Jasmine and Mervin Norohna as Aladdin, will both be making their panto debuts, but they will be able learn from the vastly experienced Tom Lister as Abanazar and Steve Royle, whose first pantomime performance came before co-star Mervin was born.

Steve, a veteran of more than 1000 panto performances says: ‘We always have a lot of fun. It’s a proper old variety show and just about the only place now where you get dancers, comics, soap stars and everyone else performing together.

‘We always try to add in lots of references to things that have happened – it's like a daft review of the year with lots of bits thrown in about Blackpool.’

And Tom, whose wife is headteacher of a Blackpool primary school, adds: ‘It’s a different show every time; there are things that happen that we can riff on and refer to throughout the show. People always enjoy it more if they can see we’re having genuine fun on the stage – and having a great cast and script help too, of course.’

* Red Riding Hood of the Ribble Valley is at Clitheroe’s Grand Theatre on December 3, thegrandvenue.co.uk.

* Aladdin runs at Blackpool’ Grand Theatre from December 1 to January 1, blackpoolgrand.co.uk



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