Peter Duncan’s The Dame is hosted at The Dome, one of Edinburgh’s glitziest and most glamorous buildings. The sparkling chandeliers, oversized vases of flowers, ornate furnishings and the sound of champagne corks popping make it the perfect setting for a spectacle. Those ostentatious salons, however, are not where Duncan’s show takes place.
Throbbing theatricality and penetrating prose.
Having climbed several sets of stairs and wound our way through numerous corridors we enter a draped nest which is the star’s dressing room. It’s an entirely appropriate setting, far removed from the theatricality and buzz of the Grill Room. We are backstage with the dame and the show is over. Now, the only bright lights surround the Hollywood mirror above the cluttered table. It’s almost possible to smell the rails of costumes and the unmistakable wafts of greasepaint and makeup remover.
Parading around the green room, Duncan reminds us of the great tradition in which he stands with a sampler from the mother of all dames, the great George Robey. It’s a prologue to the life of Ronald Roy Humphrey, who has returned to the northern seaside town where he grew up. What follows is the classic tale of the sad clown; the complete contrast between what people see on stage and the real person beneath the costume. Now he confronts the demons that forced him away many years ago. The great days of music hall and Punch and Judy have passed but his memories are as vivid as ever. He treats us to an impromptu performance of the famous puppet show he so enjoyed as a child and also recounts the abuse and abandonment he suffered during those years. He relives events with music, costumes and dance that all give vitality to his reminiscences. Piece by piece he removes the weighty costume and headpiece that touches the ceiling as he bares his soul, taking consolation in the occasional sip of whisky when he recounts the sadder and more sombre moments.
The Dame is written by one of Duncan’s daughters, Katie, who continues in the dramatic tradition started by her grandparents. The combination is powerful. Her writing flows and eloquently digs into the depths of despair yet revels in the heights of adulation. Duncan knows how to play both. His years performing such roles and immersion in pantomime shine through, but he also has the anger and pathos required of straight actor that can bring tears to the eyes. That he gets the mix right is tribute to his remarkable talent. Between them, they have created a show of throbbing theatricality and penetrating prose.
Ronnie proclaims, ‘My armour, my war paint, the battle out there: it’s all I’ve ever known’, echoing Robey’s words that ‘an artist's life isn't all clover’. At least at The Dome it’s possible to escape the outpourings of the dressing room and enjoy the splendours front of house.