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Lowestoft Players 50th Anniversary: Pantomime Dames

PUBLISHED: 10:17 29 December 2017 | UPDATED: 10:17 29 December 2017

Lowestoft Players productions have included a number of eye-catching dames over the last 50 years. Picture: Courtesy of Bob Dickson

Lowestoft Players productions have included a number of eye-catching dames over the last 50 years. Picture: Courtesy of Bob Dickson

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In the height of pantomime season, we look at the creation of the archetypal panto dame and how The Lowestoft Players have crafted their own leading ‘ladies’ over the last 50 years.

‘Ugly of face and evil of heart': The quintessential ugly sisters Lavinia (Ron Morley) and Toilette (Les Risebrow) in the Players' 1975 production of Cinderella. Picture: Courtesy of Bob Dickson‘Ugly of face and evil of heart': The quintessential ugly sisters Lavinia (Ron Morley) and Toilette (Les Risebrow) in the Players' 1975 production of Cinderella. Picture: Courtesy of Bob Dickson

The popularity and longevity of the classic pantomime dame owes much to the work of legendary entertainer Joseph Grimaldi.

Playing roles such as Queen Rondabellyana in a January 1813 performance of Harlequin and the Red Dwarf and Dame Cecily Suet in the Covent Garden revival of Dick Whittington the following year, Grimaldi helped establish the pantomime dame as the comic, cross-dresser that is today seen as essential.

In 1820, he played a dame-like role as the wife of Baron Pomposini in Harlequin and Cinderella or the Little Glass Slipper; in fact, Cinderella remains one of the only pantomimes where the villains - the ugly stepsisters - have the honour of taking dame form.

Grimaldi was soon to retire due to ill health in 1823, but pantomime’s growth continued. Victorian audiences were fascinated by the spectacle and the most extravagant productions at London Theatres featured clever stage tricks, stunning costumes and huge casts.

Stephen Wilson's original drawing for the Queen Passionella dame in the Players' 2013 production of Sleeping Beauty. Picture: Courtesy of Bob DicksonStephen Wilson's original drawing for the Queen Passionella dame in the Players' 2013 production of Sleeping Beauty. Picture: Courtesy of Bob Dickson

When the 1870s came around, the ‘father of modern pantomime’ Augustus Harris introduced the stars of the Victorian Music Hall into his lavish productions at the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane.

The music hall influence redefined the pantomime dame’s role and one of the more significant flagbearers was Dan Leno, a highly popular comedian who appeared on Drury Lane every year between 1888 and 1903 as ‘Mother Goose.’ Leno’s influence was so profound that his style of performance is now seen as a staple aspect of modern pantomime.

Topicality was a particularly important input during the Victorian era; the dame’s costumes ‘stage business’ were designed to reflect national happenings or local events familiar to the audience. In the year that balloonists Coxwell and Glaisher broke the altitude record for a balloon ascent, the 1862 Dick Whittington panto featured the protagonist being chased by a villain in a hot air balloon.

There also developed a belief that dames should either be extremely camp or, in contrast, the polar opposite. In more recent decades, Danny La Rue and Paul O’Grady have provided us with notable examples of the former, where as Arthur Askey and Les Dawson have left audiences in little doubt about the leading lady’s true identity.

Stephen Wilson as Dame Tilly, matriarch of the Trott Family in the Players’ Jack and the Beanstalk, 2015. Picture: Courtesy of Bob DicksonStephen Wilson as Dame Tilly, matriarch of the Trott Family in the Players’ Jack and the Beanstalk, 2015. Picture: Courtesy of Bob Dickson

An examination of the 50-year history of the Lowestoft Players reveals that, just as the company as a whole has seen its capability and stagecraft evolve, so too has their careful cultivation of pantomime dames.

The Players’ dames have almost always been of the ‘Arthur Askey school’, blatantly played by men who do decidedly little to sugarcoat it.

In the 1975 production of Cinderella, co-directed by Paul Holman and Avril Randall, the quintessential step-sisters Lavinia (Ron Morley) and Toilette (Les Risebrow) were certainly ugly of face and evil of heart.

While during the Players’ early days there was not so much capacity for aesthetic intricacy, the company’s talented designers have progressively kept pace with the dames’ desire for more and more outlandish costumes.

Mary ‘Ruff Puff’ Berry the cook (played by Stephen Wilson), getting ready to bring chaos to the kitchen in Dick Whittington and the Pirate Adventure, 2016. Picture: Courtesy of Bob DicksonMary ‘Ruff Puff’ Berry the cook (played by Stephen Wilson), getting ready to bring chaos to the kitchen in Dick Whittington and the Pirate Adventure, 2016. Picture: Courtesy of Bob Dickson

In 2013, Players chairman and dame-in-chief Stephen Wilson created perhaps the most striking design for Queen Passionella that he could think of. The clever costume team for Sleeping Beauty of Diana Richards, Kim Simpson, Linda Goodhand and Jenny Grint duly obliged, producing a cupcake-covered masterpiece that would catch the eye in any panto.

Two years later there was Dame Tilly, matriarch of the Trott family in the Players’ version of Jack and the Beanstalk, with her swirling bright orange hair, stars for earrings and subtle allusion to the colours of Daisy the Cow in her outfit.

In 2016, Dick Whittington and the Pirate Adventure had topicality taken care of with the inclusion of Mary ‘Ruff Puff’ Berry the cook, who brought chaos to the kitchen despite cries of “we musn’t make a mess!”

Lowestoft continues to play a leading role in pantomime across the UK, with Paul Holman Associates - originally formed in Lowestoft - staging nine pantos this year including Aladdin at the Marina Theatre.

Meanwhile, Lowestoft-based set designers Scenic Projects have now created sets for more than 50 pantomimes and the company’s chiefs Nick Garrod, Martin Wilson and Stephen Wilson have between them overseen 28 dame-ships out of the Players’ 50 pantos to date.

• From January 20 to 28 next year, The Lowestoft Players will perform Cinderella at the Marina Theatre for their 50th anniversary pantomime. Call 01502 533200 or visit the Marina Theatre website to book tickets.

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