There ain’t nothing like a dame called Freyne

I am being turned into a panto dame by Sammy Sausages of the Tivoli Theatre


Due to a staff shortage, I have been asked by my editor to write a style feature in which I undergo a makeover for, I assume, a job interview or an important presentation or perhaps a class reunion. To be honest with you I haven’t read the email properly because I’m a busy man. But advice on how to dress for success is always welcome. The clothes maketh the man, after all, as Shakespeare said that time he was on Head to Toe.

After some polite conversation and facial treatments with my stylist Rob Murphy who is based, for some reason, in the Tivoli Theatre and is accompanied by, for some reason, Alan Hughes from TV3, I glance in the light-bulb framed mirror to see his work. I have rouged cheeks, glittery lips, a large pink wig, bright red gloves and a purple frock. It’s a bold look and I’m impressed with Murphy’s radical approach.

“Rob,” I ask. “Is this look really called ‘office casual’?”

“I never said it was called ‘office casual’,” says Murphy.

“I thought you said it was called ‘office casual,” I say.

“He didn’t,” says Alan Hughes from TV3, who is helping me into the brightly coloured frock (the room is full of frocks).

“Rob,” I ask again. “Are you turning me into a panto dame?”

“Yes,” says Murphy.

At this point I decide to actually read the email from my editor. Apparently the feature I’m meant to write is about being turned into a panto dame by Alan Hughes, who as Sammy Sausages oversees the Tivoli’s annual panto, and Rob Murphy, who each year treads the boards as the glamorous dame, Buffy. I quickly recalibrate to accommodate this new reality (like I did when Trump was elected).

“How does one become a panto dame?” I ask, professionally.

Rob, who is in his 20s, was first enlisted when the Rialto Variety group was short a dame. “I said, ‘I can’t be a dame, I’m only 16!’” says Murphy. “I was replacing a 70-year-old man who’d played the dame for his whole life. It was a big thing. But I loved it. I remember coming on stage on a scooter covered in tinsel.”

“Buffy is not your traditional type of panto dame,” says Hughes, who has been involved in panto for 24 years. “She’s a little bit more outrageous. I worked with a lot of dames like Val Fitzpatrick and Jimmy O’Dea. Val would throw make-up on over his stubble, but Buffy is pure perfection. I think dames have changed. I mean, the amount of comments Rob gets about his legs.”

Indeed, Murphy often wears the clothes of his female co-stars and undergoes some eight stressful costume changes per show. “I have my little dresser Margaret driven demented,” he says. “‘Margaret! Where are me shoes?’ . . . What I love about Buffy is that before she says a word people are already laughing at the costume changes.”

‘I swear on my hair’

Does anyone treat her as a style icon? “God bless them if they do,” says Murphy.

Murphy knows his panto. He has seen the greats – Maureen Potter and June Rogers (who he has worked with previously) – and when he turned up to audition for Hughes he ignored the casting note that asked for older actors. Hughes and his partner Karl Broderick, were initially a bit sceptical. “But he was brilliant,” says Hughes. “It worked big time.”

“People assume I’m older,” says Murphy. “Because dames usually are.” Last year he heard someone say. “‘I’d say Buffy is in his 60s.’ Which doesn’t say much for the good legs!”

Mischievous Buffy has become a little bit of a panto icon with recurring catchphrases like “I swear on my hair” and “Thanks a thousand.”

“Women have come up to me,” says Hughes “And they’ve said: ‘I will kill you because when my kids do something bold and I say, ‘Did you do that?’ They say ‘I didn’t mammy, I swear on my hair’.”

It’s quite a responsibility, says Murphy. “People post on Facebook saying ‘Sammy Sausages and Buffy make my Christmas’ and you think ‘we’ve quite an important job to do!’”

Everyone knows Buffy. Between shows during the run, he goes down to Burdocks for dinner in full make-up. “They love it,” he says.

Does he stay in character? “Buffy’s too mental.”

He doesn’t go method? “She’s man mad,” says Murphy. “If I went method, I’d be in the STD clinic every week.”

Culture and blusher

I remember that I write for The Irish Times and so I ask about panto’s cultural origins. Murphy talks about restoration theatre. “I think the panto dame has its origins in the ‘fop’ character,” he says. “An effeminate man who wore rouge. That’s where lots of stock characters come from actually.”

In fact, when he was studying theatre in Bull Alley drama school, his performance as a fop prompted his lecturer to predict a career in panto for him. “She posts on Facebook, ‘I told you!’”

What makes a good dame? They discuss classic dames like Val Fitzpatrick, Christopher Biggins and John Inman for a moment. “Comic timing,” concludes Murphy.

“And warmth,” says Hughes. “You have to have a warmth and empathy with the audience. She has to open her arms and give the audience a big hug. You can’t have a stand-offish dame who’s cold and technical.”

Some actors struggle with the anarchic nature of panto, says Murphy. And some struggle with the number of performances. “Two shows a day, every day. It’s a workout. I go on the vitamins and get a flu jab before the season starts. There’s no ‘sick’ in show business.”

It’s all about stamina, he says. At the start of a panto run, it takes him over an hour to do the make-up, but by the end, he says, he does it in 30 minutes. He loves the camaraderie. He recently did a one-man show, Sixty-Nine Shades of Gay, and found it “so lonely”.

There are five of us backstage right now and I am not remotely lonely. I am nearly made-over and ready to attend my presentation, job interview or class reunion. There are no shoes. “We couldn’t get any in your size,” says Hughes sadly. Murphy adorns me with some “bling” (jewellery) and then tries to hoist a blonde wig on my enormous head.

“You look like Cilla Black,” he says.

“I think he looks more like Donald Trump,” says the photographer, who is carefully avoiding flying glitter.

“You’ll be finding glitter on your pillow for days,” says Murphy. “My house is full of glitter at Christmas. My partner is a psychiatric nurse and heads off to work covered in it.” He pauses for thought. “Then again, they say laughter is the best medicine.”

To boob or not to boob

The blonde wig won’t fit so Hughes and Murphy opt for a larger, pinker wig adorned with butterflies. “Do you want boobs?” asks Hughes. It’s not a question I’ve been asked before.

“I would like boobs,” I say. Hughes pads the relevant parts of my dress.

“Do I need to lose the beard?” I ask.

“Not at all,” says Hughes. “If I was mentoring you as a dame I’d tell you to butch it up, to just walk on stage and say.” He deepens his voice. “How’rye.”

Murphy remembers something. “The beauty spot! That’s very important.” He dots my cheek with an eyebrow pencil.

“I think you’re ready for your close-up, Mr Demille,” says Hughes and soon Murphy and I are doing Charlie’s Angels-style poses for the photographer who finds this hilarious altogether and likens me to an overly decorated Christmas tree. He just doesn’t understand high fashion.

I look for my own phone so he can take a photograph of me on that. I can’t find it. “It’s behind you!” says Murphy on cue.

And then I gaze at my reflection like Narcissus or, indeed, a less racially insensitive Christopher Biggins. I would definitely make an impression at a job interview dressed like this.

“I like it,” I say. “Can I borrow the dress for a while?”

“We’ve created a monster,” says Hughes throwing his hands to heaven.

“I swear on me hair,” says Murphy.

The Cheerios Tivoli Panto, Aladdin runs from December 12th until the end of January.

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