What makes a good panto dame?

Bognor Regis is a place dear to the heart of Brighton-based actor and panto dame David Rumelle.

Bognor panto - pic by youreventphotography.co.uk
Bognor panto - pic by youreventphotography.co.uk

David was at the Regis Centre in 1992. He was back there in 1995 for an old-time music hall summer season – which was when he met his partner. 26 years later, they are still together. 26 years later, David is finally back on the Regis Centre stage – as Dame Trott in Jack and the Beanstalk this Christmas.

Jack and the Beanstalk tells the story of Jack, his brother Silly Billy and his mother as they attempt to beat the evil giant in the sky and save the village.

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The venue is promising “a spectacular pantomime featuring a superb cast, brilliant scenery and costumes, amazing special effects and lots and lots of laughs”, the first time Jack and the Beanstalk has been performed at the Alex.

David did his first dame in 1995, starting off with Mother Goose: “And I think over the years, you just build up the character. You add to it each year. It is like going back to an old friend.

“This time, because it is Dame Trott in Jack in the Beanstalk, it is a very motherly dame, the mother of Jack and Silly Billy. She is a typical mum. She is funny but she has got a heart of gold. She is prissy, but she loves her sons and would do anything for them. And there is a moment of lovely pathos when they have to sell the cow…”

There are certain key elements to playing a dame: “The children have got to realise that it is a man in a dress. It is not funny laughing at a pretty lady falling over on her bottom or showing her bloomers, but it is OK to laugh at a man playing a mother so long as she is a kind mother.

“I think you have got to be funny and kind. You have got to bring love to it and also bring humour to it and you have got to be kind. And as (celebrated dame) Jack Tripp used to say, you have got to realise that it is a man. And then once you have got all that you can go off in different tangents.”

This year, the significance is that panto is part of putting the pandemic behind us: “This year I have managed to find bits and pieces of work. I have done a lot of corporate work, and I am writing and recording all my memoirs onto YouTube, just usually ‘David Rumelle reads the rep years’ or ‘David Rumelle reads the panto years’ or whatever.

“There are so many wonderful memories from all these shows that I have done. I am lucky that I can remember in detail so much about the shows that I have done. It is getting on for 31 years now that I have been in the business, and it is just all about using your experience and finding whatever work you can. And to be always learning. You never stop learning. With this one, I am looking forward to working with a young comic and I am looking forward to playing opposite a young Jack as well.”

David admits the pandemic did make him question his work a little: “I was thinking ‘Is this the way it is all going to end after all these years?’, but I do lots of different things, variety work, cabaret, corporate, voice-overs and also a lot of murder-mystery work. You just can’t put all your eggs in one basket in this business, and I managed to get through. And I am confident.

“You worry about having the energy to do it. You worry about having been out of the loop for so long, but as soon as I got back into the theatre, then technique takes over and you know that you are going to be OK.”