What's in a dame?

Last night I wore bottle-green ribbed tights under a brown cotton frock, pulled in at the waist by a black leather belt. I checked myself out in the bedroom mirror from several angles. "How do I look?" I asked my wife. "Totally ridiculous," she replied over the top of her book.

It's panto time again and this year I am playing Little John in a local production of Robin Hood. I am tasked with trying to rescue Maid Marian from the evil clutches of the Sheriff of Nottingham. My final scene involves pointing an oversized crossbow at His Evilness and delivering the immortal line: "I have a large weapon and I'm not afraid to use it."

My wife and I wonder why someone 5ft 2in tall has been cast as a man who, according to legend, was a fierce, warrior-like giant over 7ft in height. If his name was originally meant to be ironic are we now being doubly ironic?

Or are we, in fact, removing all traces of irony to avoid confusing an audience unused to such subtleties? I wonder to myself if this is the fault of the modern education system in which I have long worked.

Thinking back to my childhood it was similar and yet different. Pantomimes were the only live theatre I ever saw. They took place in the church hall and starred the local vicar. A man of the cloth cavorting round the stage wearing a voluminous dress over an enormous false bosom was a source of inspiration to me in my youth and helped to shape my future leisure activities.

I had to wait until I was 15 for my first taste of real theatre. That's when our English teacher took us to see Macbeth. We had read the script in class so I knew it was going to be short on laughs. But what really disappointed me was the lack of audience participation. "What do you mean we're not allowed to boo Lady Macbeth.But Banquo's ghost is behind him.All this throwing in of poison'd entrails is fine, Miss, but when are they going to throw custard pies?"

Back to the present and Nurse Millie (retired male teacher and part-time pantomime dame) is breathless after being attacked by a pack of feral Wolf Cubs during our Saturday matinee. Her barbecue in the depths of Sherwood Forest has gone disastrously wrong: her stove malfunctioned and launched several volleys of polystyrene burgers into the audience. Squirting it with fake mayonnaise did little to calm the situation.

Backstage, the Merry Men have two minutes to wrestle Nurse Millie out of a frock trimmed with dangly bangers and strategically placed baps, and lever her into one with a target for the archery contest. Sweat steams off her false boobs. Her boxer shorts sag under the weight of a microphone battery pack. She curses when Will Scarlett traps her hairy back in the zipper. She's ready with only seconds to spare. "Thanks, lads," she whispers, fluttering her false eyelashes. "How do I look?"

Steve Eddison teaches at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield

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