Dame for a laugh

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - Culture - 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

Pho­to­graph: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Bar­rie Hunter as Sissy in Snow White and the Seven Dames

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