The Dame (PARK 90, Park Theatre)

The Dame (PARK 90, Park Theatre, until January 26th)

Ghosts of the past haunt a fading entertainer whose annual highlight is playing the dame in panto. As he recalls the glory days of a theatrical life now firmly in the past the hard truths beneath the make-up are revealed in the magnificent one-man play The Dame at the Park Theatre.

Performed to absolute perfection by multi-talented Peter Duncan and exquisitely written by his daughter Katie, this may not make any claim to being entirely autobiographical. However, it is hard not to find shards of the Duncan family history in an enthralling piece which is a love letter to the good old days of theatre, variety, end of the pier shows, and pantos that ran from Christmas to Easter.

Duncan, as Ronald Roy Humphrey, first appears on stage outrageously dressed as the dame from Jack and the Beanstalk, which is being performed in a northern seaside town – the very place, incidentally, where “Ronnie” grw up. As he gets changed after the show, he notes that actors, “bare all on stage, but bare more in the dressing room.” He removes his character costume and make-up (“This is my armour, my warpaint, and I go into battle every night.”) and the brittle actor is exposed, with all his joys, regrets and despair.

Addressing the audience directly from his dressing room (a splendid small but detailed set by Peter Humphrey), Ronnie reminisces wistfully about the days when his parents staged summer season seaside shows and his growing up in a world of Punch and Judy, pierrots, and variety entertainment on the sand which went ahead come rain or shine. The skill of the writing is that the pictures conjured up in the actor’s memory are brought vividly to life for the audience – and the skill of the actor is that the audience is so easily drawn into this nostalgic trip down Memory Lane

The fact that the story is not a million miles away from Duncan’s own life – his parents ran summer seasons on Brighton Pier and pantomimes in Tunbridge Wells, while even some of the more personal segments have parallels in fact – lend the hard-hitting production added layers of poignancy.

Nostalgia, and the tears it brings, invades every action, every line. Duncan’s ageing performer (“Retire? I’m too old for that!” he quips, though later shouts at the mirror, “You’re an old man!”) pays tribute to legends such as Charlie Chaplin and George Robey while being watched by a painting of Dan Leno as Mother Goose on his dressing room wall. He laments the passing of great British theatrical institutions and sings old music hall songs (“If you were the only girl in the world” is given extra piquancy by a final revelation) but his memories are not always studded with fondness as he looks back in bitter anger.

The character of Ronald Roy Humphrey is every bit as important as John Osborne’s Archie Rice: The Entertainer features an angry and often unlikeable music hall performer rueing the demise of his art and background while The Dame is about an amiable and sympathetic  contemporary artist in an age where music hall is dead and variety comes from TV talent shows.

Though bitten by the performance bug early on and put on stage as “The Boy Wonder” behind the smiles lie a real world of living with an abusive and demanding father and a mother who peers through a telescope at other worlds, realms and possibilities before abandoning husband and child one night. Even the theatrical world of a Punch and Judy puppet show has a cruel resonance to the youngster’s real life.

It says a lot about Duncan’s relationship with the audience (he even manages a couple of traditional panto interplays with unsuspecting folk in the front row) that this is never a monochrome story related indifferently: this is a work as colourful as the costumes, greasepaint and props on display and it is hard not be be deeply moved and drawn in to what unfolds and the genuine emotions that are unmasked.

Ian Talbot, himself no stranger to the world of pantomime having appeared in and directed many up and down the country, directs with an understanding of the thrill of performance balanced by the naked truth that underneath the dame lies a clown and a fool, and that adulation on stage is often outweighed by loneliness and sadness off it.

Adding considerably to the overall impact of this small-scale piece are the atmospheric sound moods created by another member of the Duncan family, Georgia, and lighting by James Smith.

The Dame was highly praised at the Edinburgh Fringe and no wonder: it is an exceptionally mature and powerful piece of writing which can make the audience chuckle one moment and wipe away tears the next. At its heart is a moving and mesmerising performance by Peter Duncan that demands our attention and deserves to be seen.

David Guest 

Image: Robert Workman

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub