Playing the Dame is a serious business for panto actor

Reporter:

Jamie Bowman

Three days before the opening night of Theatr Clwyd’s annual rock ‘n’ roll panto Sleeping Beauty and the backstage is suitably chaotic.

Lighting and sound men bark instructions as dancers rush down the corridors and carpenters adjust the huge wooden backdrop.

Sitting surreally in the middle of all this on a converted golf buggy is actor Sean Mackenzie, aka Nurse Tabetha Trott, who this year makes his return to Mold in that most unique of theatrical roles – the panto dame.

No other role exemplifies panto silliness than the dame, with its outrageous costumes, dirty jokes and very English sense of slapstick.

Whether it’s Widow Twankey, Mother Goose or Goldilock’s mother, the dame’s role goes right back to the Victorian era, when she was a vehicle for the music-hall performers of the day and it’s a custom that shows no sign of stopping.

“I get nervous, but I was more nervous last year because that was the first time I’d ever played the dame,” says Sean, back in the relative calm of his dressing room. “But it went really well, we got fantastic reviews and the audience really took me to their heart.

“We had a lot of really special nights last year and I was absolutely delighted when they asked me back.”

This year’s rock ‘n’ roll panto will feature 16 songs played live by the cast and featuring hits including Superstition, Celebration, Every Breath You Take, Hey Baby and Sex Bomb.

But despite the singing and dancing, it’s their traditional pantomime dame which remains one of theatre’s greatest traditions.

“We’ve moved into the world of female impersonators now, but that isn’t what being a dame is all about for me,” says Sean, 50.

“A dame, as Arthur Askey once said, is ‘nothing more than a man in a frock’ and it should stay that way because it allows us to get away with murder!

“What we all love about a dame is a slightly risque joke or an innuendo and that’s the dame’s role. She has to be motherly, sisterly and always chasing a man unsuccessfully.

“It adds spice and fun to proceedings and that goes right back to the origins of pantomime.

“Children sit there and go ‘is that a man or a woman?’ and it’s always brilliant when you see the young kids giggling because you look so silly and the adults laughing for another reason entirely.”

With the likes of Danny La Rue, Christopher Biggins, Melvyn Hayes and John Inman going down in panto history for their dame portrayals, Sean is proud to be continuing a long line of ‘ladies’.

“I grew up in the variety world because my dad was a singer,” remembers Lancashire-born Sean. “We lived in Blackpool and in the ‘70s and ‘80s there were a lot of great acts from comedians to singers to ventriloquists.

“I was lucky and I saw a lot of great dames including Peter Butterworth who was in the Carry On films and Les Dawson who was my absolute favourite.

“I’ve always been a very physical performer and I’ve tried to learn by watching the greats like Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Stan Laurel who is my personal favourite – there’ll never be anyone better than him.

“Watching great stand-ups too like Ken Dodd helped.

“He doesn’t just stand there telling jokes. He acts and it’s all about timing and listening to an audience.”

Although it might look like everyone is having a laugh onstage, Sean – whose TV credits include Downton Abbey, Emmerdale and Shameless – insists keeping calm is crucial if the comedy is going to work.

“Your brain works in a very strange way when you’re on stage,” he explains.

“You’re trying to keep 10 things in your head at once – he’s coughed over there, they’re going to the toilet over there, I’ve got to pick that prop up, I’ve got to make that line work etc.

“Last year we had some great moments when you improvise and let the
audience in.

“How you interact with the audience is so important – they’re the most important people in the room, not the director. They pay your wages for a start!”

Following last year’s panto appearance, Sean is relishing being back at Theatr Clwyd and like many other actors who appear there he is full of praise for the building and its facilities.

“I’ve worked at a lot of great theatres throughout the country, including places like the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon but this place is basically the national theatre for Wales,” he adds. “It has everything here from the scenery department to a paint shop and costume makers and everything is done in house.

“I always tell people I’m going to work at one of the most amazing theatres in the country and when Tamara [Harvey, Theatr Clwyd’s artistic director] asked me back I was delighted and it’s something I’ve been looking forward to all year.”

Tonight will see the first performance and Nurse Tabatha Trott with her eight costume changes and specially customised ambulance is sure to be the star of the show.

“It’s like going to war,” laughs Sean as he contemplates yet another ridiculous dress fitting. “You have to prepare mentally and physically and be really strong, fit and committed.

“No matter how you’re feeling you’ve got to treat it like the first night every night. Some people only come to the theatre once a year and that’s for panto, so it’s really important we give them the best show possible.”

Email:

jamie.bowman@nwn.co.uk

See full story in the Whitchurch Herald

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