Becoming the dame

  • Andrew Pepper

Described as a ‘show-stealer’ by The Times, Cabaret star Andrew Pepper made his lauded first turn as panto dame as Connie Clatterbottom in The Theatre Chipping Norton’s 2015 production of Robin Hood - now he’s dressing up again for Chippy’s Robinson Crusoe.

For panto lovers young and old, the highlight of any show is often the dame. Far more than just a man in drag, a good dame can belt out a great tune, carry off towering costumes with aplomb - and, of course, collar the parents in the audience for a spot of playful humiliation.

Andrew tells us what makes an unforgettable dame - and why Chippy’s pantos are different from the rest...

In London youre known as a star of the cabaret circuit. How did you get into cabaret?

I got into cabaret over a decade ago. Cabaret’s not like acting, where you’re dependent on somebody giving you a job - you decide you’re going to do it yourself, put on your own work. And if you stick at it people might ask you to join them in their venues.

How I started - there was a performance venue called the Battersea Barge, literally a barge on the river Thames. You could hire it for free and they took all the money on the bar, so it was great for people who wanted to put on their own thing. I hired it maybe ten, twelve years ago, and invited friends to put on a cabaret with me. And it just kind of worked!

We carried on. Over the years I got invited to do guest spots at other people’s  gigs and it just snowballed, really.

Your years as a cabaret performer must have proven excellent training for your first turn as a dame.

Oh yes, the perfect training! For me [being a dame] was perfect because it married all the things I do - I’m an actor as well as a cabaret performer, so I got to work with script, work with text, but also there are all these cabaret elements: talking to the audience, ad libbing, going amongst the audience. So I got to sing, act, do a bit of cabaret…It was awesome.

So talk us through the process of becoming the dame. How did you work with the Chippy team to become Connie Clatterbottom in Robin Hood last year?

It happened very organically. I didn’t feel especially qualified to do it - I hadn’t spent lots of time as a grown up watching pantomimes - but Abigail Anderson, our director, said that every dame is personal to the performer, so just think of it as like your cabaret work: find yourself in the character.

I went through lots of videos on YouTube, watched interviews with various dames - and every dame was completely different, you could see that. Some were more traditional; others played with the idea of a man in a dress. There were no rules: the role of dame was just entirely personal to you.

So I thought - I’m just going to go in and trust my instincts. There wasn’t any process where I studied specific people or certain women. I just went and started reading the script and when people started laughing, I’d think: ‘Oh, that works, I’ll keep doing that.’

I remember when I first started working on a song with the composer Sarah Travis - my first number. I said: ‘Okay ladies, I have never done this before. If this is wrong, if I’m sending it up, if it’s grotesque or I’m breaking the rules - just tell me.’ I went with my instincts and they said: ‘Spot on, it’s wonderful.’

How much stamina do you need to be the dame? I imagine its quite intensive.

It can be exhausting, as it can be for anybody who works in pantomime. We were doing 12 shows a week and a large portion of those were morning shows for schools. I found it knackering because it was a big sing for me - as well as the ensemble numbers I had two solo songs - one a big in-yourface show-stopper. Which I loved doing! But singing is a very physical thing, it’s physically tiring because you’re using muscles and engaging your whole body. It built into this big crescendo where I had to sing top notes at the end of my range.

I made my entrance about ten minutes into the show - so at 10.25 some mornings [for the school shows] I was having to whack out these big old notes. It can be draining!

Often with shows some people have a bit of a social life - I think I went to the pub five times tops, I used to just crawl home and watch Netflix. I was writing a show at the time, and when I started I thought: ‘Great, I’ll have all this spare time in the evenings, and I’ll do loads of writing’ - but of course I’d just have a nice sleep [laughs]. Oh well, it’s only ten weeks!

Audiences love a good dame. Why do you think they still find the figure of the dame so compelling, after all these years?

Good question - I suspect somebody’s written an MA thesis on that! The first reason that occurs to me - and this is something I remember viscerally experiencing - when you go into the audience you can feel a lot of the men thinking: ‘Oh God, Christ, is she really coming towards me?’ [Laughs] And the women love it, often you see them pointing to their husbands and communicating to me: ‘Pick on him! Pick on him!’ They love any excuse to laugh at the men they’re with. Basically, anyone who’s not getting picked on enjoys the other person getting picked on. That’s funny. As human beings we enjoy watching it happen to other people - in a nice way, not in a horrible way. And that’s something you get in theatre that you can’t get in cinema or television. You’re reminded that you’re in a live event, you’re in a room full of people, united.

And I think that’s the power of the dame - she can go in and really unite and galvanise an audience in a way that the other characters on the stage can’t, and in that way it’s very fun to play the dame.

So youre Robinson Crusoes mother this year?

Yes, Camilla. [Laughs]. I think I’ve got something like six big old costumes. The costume department started work way earlier, like in the middle of the summer, and I know that they work on the script and music for a long time. We actors begin rehearsal in about three weeks. Gosh, it comes around quickly. I haven’t done much yet but read the script and laugh at it. It's very funny.

But all of the design elements are very much ahead of the game. They've made a cast of my head so that they can fit and make the wigs!

Why do you think Chippys pantos are so popular? Whats the secret ingredient?

I think it’s the fact that they’re not put on cynically. They’re not relying on a television personality or a celebrity to sell them. They’re not shoe-horning in pop songs to make things easier for the audience - they’re doing it with a hell of a lot of integrity.

They’re creating something fresh. It’s actually crazy when you look at the workload that’s going into it - because what they’re doing is creating a brand new musical, in effect. Because as well as a brand new script, there’s a score of songs created for the show, which will never get sung again. It’s a completely new show, created from scratch. It’s why I think people come back year after year - it’s not recycled.

And they’re done with a lot of charm, and a lot of warmth - and that goes for a lot. The problem with panto is that it’s got quite a bad name now, actually, because of people throwing in celebrities and doing any old thing to make it cheaper…but pantomime is actually a very strong and beautiful and ancient tradition that goes way back. It’s a real art form if you look closely and unpack it.

[Director] John Terry, and Abigail Anderson who directed last year - they know their stuff. They have really studied the craft of pantomime, what makes it special - they’re really steeped in the tradition of panto, and all the ancient games and routines and rules that exist in the structure and history of panto - actors playing with audiences, and all good things that make up a pantomime. There’s a lot of work and understanding, in the same way that a Morecambe and Wise sketch is created, in a specific and beautifully crafted way.

Find out more about the sensational Andrew Pepper at www.theandrewpepper.com

Robinson Crusoe and the Pirate Queen plays at the Theatre Chipping Norton (Tuesday 15th November - Sunday 8th January). Book online at www.chippingnortontheatre.com or call the Box Office on 01608 642350 (Mon to Fri 10am - 6pm, Sat 10am - 2pm)

Enter our competition to WIN a family ticktet to see Andrew in Robinson Crusoe and the Pirate Queen.