ACT in Action Issue 17

a hat with one feather protruding at the top, and a fur which she referred to as 'me little bit of vermin'. Her exaggerated dress sense, bordering on the grotesque, made her one of the few women who appeared successfully as a pantomime dame. Dan Leno played his first pantomime Dame at the Surrey Theatre in 1886. George Conquest, the Surrey's manager, had seen him singing the comic song 'Going to buy milk for the twins' at the Middlesex Music Hall. He noticed how well skirts suited Leno and booked him as the Dame for Jack and the Beanstalk . It was not long before Leno was hired by Augustus Harris, who produced the spectacular pantomimes at the

spent hours watching the animal he would be impersonating: he borrowed a poodle in the weeks before Babes in the Wood opened so that he could observe it. The performances were physically extremely demanding, and Lauri had to be an acrobat as well as an actor. In Babes the poodle performed tricks, such as jumping through a hoop, and he was described in a review as 'the most agile performing poodle ever seen'. Animals are a regular feature of pantomime and were added into pantomime stories if they were not already part of the plot. Real animals were often used on stage, but there was plenty of humour to be found in animals played by human actors wearing animal costumes (known as 'skins'). The first animal to make an appearance in a pantomime was a donkey, ridden by a

Nellie Wallace, black and white photograph, early 20th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Charles Lauri as 'The French Poodle', The Sketch Magazine, 15th March 1893. Museum no. 131655. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Leno was such a success as the Baroness in the 1888 Babes in the Wood , that Harris booked him for the next three pantos, and eventually - as Leno would boast - 'for the term of my natural life'. The production of Aladdin in 1896 was not seen as one of Drury Lane's best shows, but Dan Leno's Widow Twankey was judged by many to be his finest Dame. The Stage's review was typical: 'Singing, dancing or acting, Mr Leno is at his best this season ... he stands out through the production as certainly the most clever actor who has

clown. Occasionally, actors made a career out of playing animals. Charles Lauri, for example, was known as the 'Garrick of Animal Mimes', and perfected the parts of the dog in Sinbad the Sailor and the cat in Puss in Boots. The Conquest family, George Senior, Fred, Arthur, and George Junior brought to life a remarkable menagerie, appearing variously as a parrot, monkey, and goose as well as well as the more unusual octopus, oyster and flying fish! Fred Fitzroy, a former trapeze artist, played a pantomime cat later in his stage career. Notable pantomime dames • Peter Alexander – (born 1952) Notable dame in pantomimes in Yorkshire. • Stanley Baxter – (born 1926) Award winning Scottish actor and impressionist, famous for his lavish productions, notably at The King’s Theatre, Glasgow • Douglas Byng – (1893–1988) A legendary dame who appeared in over 50 pantomimes, Byng was also a noted cabaret and revue artiste. He was the first glamorous dame and designed all his own costumes. • Christopher Biggins – (born 1948) TV personality, actor • Steven Blakeley – (born 1982) Blakeley has appeared in numer- ous pantomimes at Theatre Royal Windsor • Herbert Campbell (1844–1904) a highly popular pantomime dame alongside Dan Leno at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. • Les Dawson – (1931–1993) English comedian, remembered for his deadpan style and curmudgeonly persona.

been seen for many years in this class of work'. Affectionately known as 'Bunch', Nelson Keys was a well-known comedian and impersonator. He appeared in music halls all over London and acted in reviews in the 1920s and 1930s with Ciceley Courtneidge, Beatrice Lillie and Gertrude Lawrence. His gift for mimicry even enabled him to bluff his way as a dancer, copying the steps until he had learnt them well enough to appear with professional dancers. Bunch played Mother Hubbard in Red Riding

Hood at Covent Garden in 1938. The young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were taken to see it by their mother, the Queen. Red Riding Hood turned out to be the last pantomime presented at Covent Garden theatre, the theatre that had contributed so much to the birth of British pantomime over 200 years before. Animal impersonators Pantomime animals appear in many

of the traditional pantomimes. Jack has a cow in Jack and the Beanstalk and Dick Whittington has his famous cat. There are also pantomime horses, geese and dogs. In the 19th century, some actors specialised in performing animal roles,

Nelson “Bunch” Keys

which were known as 'skin parts'. Johnny Fuller specialised in 'skin parts' - particularly cats - and was one of the most well known animal impersonators in pantomime, along with a few others such as Charles Lauri. Puss in Boots and Dick Whittington cannot happen without a cat, but all the early Victorian pantomime subjects allowed generous leeway for the addition of cats if they wished, and a 'highly clever and comical cat' featured in A, Apple Pie, or, Harlequin, Jack in the Box and the Little Boy Blue. Charles Lauri was famous for his animal impersonations and

regularly appeared at Drury Lane as one creature or another. The photograph of Lauri as a dog is from the 1888 Drury Lane pantomime, Babes in the Wood. Although referred to in the programme as 'The Pug Dog', Lauri is quite clearly meant to be a poodle. Charles Lauri's imitations were exceptional for the accuracy with which they reproduced the movements of different animals. When rehearsing for a part, he

Johnnie Fuller - Cat impersonator

Les Dawson with Roy Barraclough

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