The tradition of men playing women stretches back to the earliest origins of the theatre, when girls and young women were played by youths and old women by men, often comically.
The panto Dame, usually the hero's mother, was a creation that emerged from the early Music Halls of the Victorian era. The public warmed to seeing their favorite comedian playing the role of Jack's mother or the King's cook and bottlewasher.
The Dame should exude warmth and comedy, even pathos, but is never required to do any 'dirty deeds'. What about the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella, we hear you cry? Well, yes, the Ugly Sisters do have to strike a balance between being hugely comic characters and yet still remain the villains of the piece. It is their constant bickering that helps them achieve this.
Over the years, stars from variety, theatre and television have graced the role of the Dame - Dan Leno, Sir George Robey, John Inman and Danny La Rue to name but a few. In 2004, classical actor Sir Ian McKellen made his panto debut, playing Widow Twankey in the Old Vic production of Aladdin. He reprised the role in 2005.
Here at Theatre Britain, some wonderful actors have given us their Dames over the years. Most recently Nathaniel P Reid appeared as Mother Goose, James Chandler was Dame Overeasy in Dick Whittington and Ivan Jones played Governess Amplebottom in Babes In The Wood.
Mark Shum, now a panto and Dame veteran, made his debut in 1997 as Entsheawful in Cinderella and went on to play Mrs Broom in our 2002 revival of The Sleeping Beauty, Maid Up in The Frog Prince, Mrs Slightly-Barmy in Jack & the Beanstalk, Widow Twankey in Aladdin and Nanny Knickers in Puss In Boots.
John Forkner was Maid A-Mess in Snow White and Brian Witkowicz and Malcolm Beaty played Entsheawful and Enchilada in our 2006 revival of Cinderella. Kevin Scott Keating played Mother Hood in Little Red Riding Hood.
Dan Dickerson Jr was our first Dame, playing Mrs Broom in our (inaugural) 1996 production of The Sleeping Beauty.
Historical panto information in this article was taken from www.its-behind-you.com. Used with permission.