LONDON (Reuters) - Roy Hudd cakes on the make-up, squeezes into his super-size bra and baby-blue slip dress, then heads out on stage to entertain a packed house of Londoners in need of a laugh at the end of a testing 2016.
The 80-year-old comedy stalwart is appearing as Mother Goose in the pantomime of the same name at Wilton’s Music Hall, a venue dating back to the 1690s, packed in between tower blocks and train lines in the capital’s East End.
It is a difficult show to describe to anyone who didn’t grow up in Britain, watching pantomimes every Christmas.
“I describe it as the ultimate dog’s breakfast of a show,” says Hudd in his changing room. “Because it combines dancing, singing, story-telling, anything ... Mostly it’s aimed at children. But as the years go by it’s become an adult attraction as well.”
There are classic ingredients: men dressed as women - the pantomime dames - fairy tale plot lines, audience chants of “he’s behind you”, music hall routines, villains, bawdy - not dirty - humour and topical jokes that let the audience laugh away the political upheaval of the past year.
The villains and topical references come together at Wilton’s in the character “Vanity” who tries to steal Mother Goose’s goose - the one that lays the golden eggs.
“He’s the villain of the piece and he always refers to Mr Trump, or President Trump, or Trumpy as his great friend. Which is guaranteed to get more boos from the audience than he does himself,” says Hudd.
After Trump, there is Brexit, a particularly seismic event in London where most voted to stay in the European Union and lost.
“I ask the goose what is her problem, because she is very down in one scene. And she whispers in my ear and I say, ‘Oh dear, you voted Remain, did you? Well it’s too late now mate, sorry.’ Which gets a big laugh.”
Similar scenes are playing out across Britain.
The online National Database of Pantomime Performance lists two other professional productions of Mother Goose, alongside 48 Cinderellas, 37 Aladdins, 21 Snow Whites - so, presumably, 147 dwarfs - and one “Robinson Crusoe and the Pirate Queen”.
Heading out further east along the River Thames, actor Andrew Pollard pulls on his own over-sized bra and dress - this one covered in pert cupcakes - for a production of “Peter Pan: A New Adventure” at Greenwich Theatre.
He is tea lady Long Joan Silver, the lynchpin in a plot involving Wendy’s great-great-grandaughter, also called Wendy, Tinkerbell on a motorised scooter and the boy who still hasn’t grown up, Peter.
There is a light touch of politics to go alongside the songs and joyous corpsing and dancing. Captain Hook goes into a rant about fighting Peter that segues into an impression of Donald Trump talking about his “beautiful wall”.
“It’s a family show based on a fairy tale ... It’s also a slight comment on a society, what’s been going on in a year. It’s a rag-bag of things,” says Pollard.
It’s a mix that seems to be attracting a more diverse audience. Grownup-only groups are up. As are ticket sales overall. “We’ve been pretty much sold out from the word go, so maybe people really do need a bit of a laugh.”
Reporting by Andrew Heavens; Editing by Toby Chopra