Review: The Dame, Park Theatre

There ain’t nothing like a dame, and that’s certainly true of Ronald Roy Humphrey, pantomime dame and all-round entertainer. His costume is his armour, his make-up his war paint and each night he goes into battle. This is the only life he’s ever known. But as he returns to his northern roots for another pantomime season the audience at the Park Theatre soon discovers that there’s a truth and tragedy behind his painted smile.

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The Dame begins at the end of one of Ron’s performances, this time as the mother in Jack and the Beanstalk in the seaside town where he grew up. Bounding his dressing room clad outrageously in his full pantomime regalia complete with absurd crown, Ron (played by former Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan) is on fine form as he shares jokes with the audience and reminisces over old-time performers of bygone days. There’s a dose of nostalgia as he reflects on his previous performances over the years and the golden age of people flocking to the seaside in their droves to watch Punch and Judy shows and entertainment along the promenade. But as he begins to strip off his costume and wipe away his make-up, Ron pours himself a glass of whiskey and bears his soul, revealing the haunting memories he’s been carrying around for decades.

This compelling one-man show was written by Katie Duncan, Peter’s daughter, and inspired by their family history – Peter’s grandparents were old-time musical hall performers who ran summer seasons in resorts including Scarborough and Brighton, along with pantomimes in the winter. Over the course of 75-minutes the audience is taken on an unforgettable rollercoaster ride as the mood shifts between humour and tragedy. Ron’s past is brought to life thanks to a brilliant script, which evokes imagery of British seaside resorts in summertime, not to mention Ron’s recollections of his mother’s love.

Peter Duncan dazzles as the larger-than-life pantomime dame, and bounds across the stage with seemingly endless energy. His ability to seamlessly switch between cheekiness one second and despair the next is a joy to watch, and there are genuine moments of heartache as Ron reveals both beautiful and shocking memories of his childhood.

There’s a lot packed into this 75-minute play, but thanks to clever direction from Ian Talbot it works. At times it feels as though there should be more focus on some of Ron’s revelations, but in a way the frenzied pace adds impact and reflects his emotional state. The sound effects, courtesy of Georgia Duncan and James Smith’s lighting help to move the action along and shift the scenes neatly from present day to memories from Ron’s past. Meanwhile the set, designed by Peter Humphrey, is Ron’s dressing room with a cluttered dressing table and chairs, a rail of outlandish costumes. The dingy space reinforces Ron’s speech striking speech about the decline of seaside resorts.

The Dame is a powerful and poignant look into the fragile creature behind the painted smile, and is brought to life by a captivating performance by Duncan. “That’s entertainment darlings,” Ron tells the audience. The Dame most certainly is.

Five stars

This review was originally written for Love London Love Culture. To read the original, click here

*Photo credit: Robert Workman

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