Dame for a Laugh
By Mark Brown
Yo ho ho! It’s that time of year again, when the theatre celebrates the season of goodwill by asking men to dress as stupendously improbable women.
Here in Scotland we excel in the art of the pantomime dame. In recent times, arguably the finest in the field has been Barrie Hunter, who is about to play the cross-dressing lead in his eighth consecutive Christmas show at Perth Theatre.
Not only is the acclaimed actor fronting the Fair City’s panto once again, but he’s also in the director’s chair for the first time in his career. He’ll be directing himself in the role of Sassy, one of the titular septet of sisters in Snow White and the Seven Dames.
The panto, which is written by playwright Frances Poet, is some distance away from the Disney version of the well-loved tale. Here, Snow White is suffering from a serious case of acne and the friendly miners are not dwarves but siblings who are unlikely to be successful as drag queens.
“The idea is that, instead of the Seven Dwarves of tradition and lore, there are Seven Dames. Or are there?”, asks Hunter, rhetorically.
“They are seven sisters, but you never quite meet more than one or two together”, he adds, with a knowing wink.
Wary of spoilers, the actor-director will say no more, but I think it’s fair to infer that Hunter and his partner in crime, fellow dame, and fine, young actor, Ewan Somers, will be having a very busy time of it in Perth this winter.
In a nod to the story upon which the show is very liberally based, the dames of Poet’s panto have names that describe their personal characteristics. So, in addition to Hunter’s lead dame, Sassy, there is Sissy, Gassy, Hissy, Hackit, Glaikit and Frank (the latter of whom can always be relied upon to speak her mind).
“They work in the mine”, Hunter explains, “which is accessed, very conveniently, through the wee caravan that they live in.”
All of which is, as one would hope and expect, fabulously silly stuff. However, as the director points out, many a true word is spoken in jest, and that is particularly true of panto.
“It’s interesting, now that I’m directing for the first time, I’m having these conversations with actors about why I love panto, and why it’s important”, says Hunter. “Pantomime is important, it connects with so many human instincts.
“One of the things we’re trying to tap into with this show is the question of labels”, he continues. Whereas the Seven Dames live up to their names, poor Snow White is struggling with a skin complaint that makes her moniker something of a burden.
“She’s like, ‘I’m much more than my name. I’d rather be named something else’, the director explains. “Her quest is to find her name.”
This combining of daft comedy with serious issues (in this case, highly topical matters of identity and being accepted for who you are) is, for Hunter, the essence of pantomime.
It is, he says, like the ribaldry of the age-old Italian theatre known as commedia dell’arte. The modern pantomime actor, and the dame in particular, is the successor to the court jester of old. Like their illustrious forebears, they are able to get away with a certain amount of satire and truth telling under the guise of comedy.
The director is humbled by the acclaim that his Perth dames have received (he is, for my money, the best Scottish dame since the great Stanley Baxter). Whether it’s the camp as Christmas Johnny McKnight at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow, the exceptional Alan Steele at the Byre in St Andrews, or Alan McHugh’s legendary dames at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, Hunter knows he’s up against some very serious, cross-dressing competition.
Snow White and the Seven Dames is at Perth Theatre, November 30 to January 5: horsecross.co.uk
This feature was originally published in The Herald on Sunday on November 25, 2018
© Mark Brown