There’s a story (probably apocryphal) about a man who goes to see a psychiatrist because he’s depressed and almost suicidal. The psychiatrist talks to him for a while and eventually comes up with a solution: “You should go and see Grock the clown. He’s incredibly funny and he will lift your spirits”. The man looks at the psychiatrist with a tear in his eye and says, “But doctor, I am Grock!”
Apart from that story, there have been songs written on the subject of what lies behind the greasepaint of the clown such as Smokey Robinson’s “Tears Of A Clown” and plays such as “The Dresser” that take us backstage and show us what goes on when the make-up and wig comes off and the real person underneath is revealed.
In Katie Duncan’s new one-man play, The Dame, “Ronnie” (played by Peter Duncan) is at pains to tell us that make-up is his war paint and the costumes he wears are his armour as he goes to war with us – the audience.
The one-act play starts with Duncan entering stage right at the end of another pantomime performance. The set is simple but interesting with a table and chair behind which are two rails of pantomime dame costumes and wigs. There are props scattered around and it all gives the feeling of the faded glory of a theatre now past its best. Duncan’s first speech is about music hall entertainer George Robey although I’m not sure many in the audience
would have got the reference as he was at his height of fame early in the 1900s. Duncan addresses the audience directly, breaking the fourth wall and proceeds to tell us his life story as his imagination takes him deep into his turbulent past.
And what a past it is. As the memories come thick and fast he takes us back through a life where he was abused by his father and abandoned by his mother. He remembers Punch and Judy shows on the beach that he saw as a child, appearing as a Pierrot in a travelling show and other events in an unstable and troubled life. We get the feeling that a lot of his time spent as a dame in panto was at the ends of piers and in theatres in places in the north such as Blackpool and Morecambe which are now certainly not what they were.
Through the fifty minutes or so Duncan sings snatches of old songs, dresses up as the person he was at various times in his life, plays the ukulele, does a Punch & Judy show and dances and races around the stage with enormous energy and dynamism. In the quieter periods (of which there are few), he sits and has a drink of whiskey but is he drinking to forget – or to remember?
Duncan, who’s been acting for many years but is probably best known as a Blue Peter presenter, is superb – this is a real tour de force and he takes us on his character’s journey into his troubled past with great skill and aplomb and the audience goes with him. The evening is a family affair as it’s written by his daughter Katie who’s a past winner of Blue Elephant Theatre’s Playwriting competition and she’s given her father some wonderful material to work with. It’s excellently directed by Ian Talbot who was Artistic Director at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre for many years and there’s also tip-top Sound Design from Georgia Duncan and Lighting Design from James Smith.
The piece is presented as “a work in development” and I do think it needs a bit of a tweak or two. At times the frenetic pace doesn’t leave enough space for the poignancy to come through and there’s a scattergun approach to the character’s life that could do with a bit of pruning. But that’s not to take anything away from what is already a fine and thoroughly enjoyable piece.
So, if you find yourself in Edinburgh during the festival do try and see it. It might even cheer Grock up!
Review by Alan Fitter
The curtains fall on another show and a seasoned pantomime dame is alone in his dressing room, unaware he is preparing for his own performance of a lifetime. Ronald Roy Humphrey has returned to the northern seaside town where he grew up for the Christmas season, and finds himself bitterly confronted with why he left all those years before.
As he starts to excavate his past, he steps back into history; bringing to life the ghosts who once paraded and performed along the piers and promenades, removing the layers one by one until he arrives at a tragic truth he had spent his whole life trying to forget.
A lost world of seaside entertainment, old time music hall and pantomime are brought to life in this one-man show where the past and present collide, magical realism meets bleak reality, and however many masks we wear, the truth will always be revealed.
The Dame is a father and daughter collaboration, a one man show starring Peter Duncan, written by his daughter Katie Duncan.
The Blue Elephant Theatre
12th July 2018