facebook play-alt chevron-thin-right chevron-thin-left cancel location info chevron-thin-down star-full help-with-circle calendar images mail whatsapp directions_car directions_bike train directions_walk directions_bus close spinner11
The company of Snow White (Photo: Paul Coltas)

The company of Snow White (Photo: Paul Coltas)

A complete beginner’s guide to pantomime

Robin Johnson

By Robin Johnson Published 20 December 2018

For those of us who grew up with it, pantomime’s quite natural to us at this point (“oh no it isn’t!”). But if you’ve never been lucky enough to encounter one of the most traditional forms of theatre out there, there can be few experiences quite as bizarre as going to a pantomime for the first time.

After all, your typical pantomime can seem completely at odds with what we usually expect from a show. There are ridiculous costumes, unusual lyrics, and little by way of a plot (and that’s somehow a good thing)! There’re silly jokes, overly flamboyant sets, and dodgy (or, in my opinion, genius!) word-play everywhere. And, to top it all off, everybody around you seems to be making a loud noise of some description every couple of minutes. So it’s fair to ask the question: what’s actually happening here?

But pantomime is an essential and well-loved staple of British and London theatre. And with hundreds of pantomimes taking place up and down the country each year – not least in the capital, where there’s always a huge variety of them to choose from – it’s a tradition that everybody simply has to experience at least once (and then every year thereafter!).

So fear not, panto newcomers, because we’ve picked out 9 key things you need to know to understand panto.

Fancy a taster? You can book tickets to see pantomimes like Snow White at the London Palladium and Dick Whittington at the Lyric Hammersmith through Official London Theatre – but do so quickly, or you’ll find yourself in January, and panto season will be “behind you!”.

1. The origins of pantomime

Gary Wilmot in Snow White (Photo: Paul Coltas)Gary Wilmot in Snow White (Photo: Paul Coltas)

Pantomime derives from forms of solo Greek theatre and, subsequently, the popular 16th-century Italian artform Commedia dell’Arte, which saw popular stories – in modern pantomime, these are usually versions of fairy tales – performed by a collection of staple comic characters.

This type of performance slowly crept into popular theatre through opera, where it was performed in segments as comic relief during long operas – of which there were plenty! But, such was pantomime’s popularity that, by the 18th century, the characters were appearing in shows of their own.

Up until 1843, strict theatre licensing laws meant that all panto was… well, mimed! But when the Theatres Act was lifted in that year, performers were allowed to speak and witty puns, over-the-top humour and audience participation all filtered into performances, laying the trail for many of the panto conventions we love today.

Nowadays, pantomime is a beloved tradition – so much so that, in 2016, it overtook comedy as the genre that filled the most seats in UK theatres. Hip hip!

2. There are always variety acts

Thanks to its roots as accessible entertainment, panto is usually less about storytelling, and more about variety. After all, the most popular pantomimes in 2016 were Cinderella, Dick Whittington, Jack And The Beanstalk, Aladdin and Beauty And The Beast – all stories people in attendance already knew!

But it’s the added variety that really makes pantomime so special. Performances can feature everything from musical numbers to stand-up comedy routines, magic tricks to social satire, spectacular set pieces to crazy costume changes – and more. Many pantomimes include all of the above, so one thing’s for sure: they’re never boring!

The Young Ensemble of Dick Whittington at Lyric Hammersmith (Photo: Tristram Kenton)The Young Ensemble of Dick Whittington at Lyric Hammersmith (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

3. Pantomime means family fun

Traditional pantomimes are great fun for all the family. By focusing less on story, and more on spectacle, pantos are renowned for their ability to hook audiences of all ages – making them a popular way of introducing theatre to children of all ages.

And if there’s one thing which unites theatregoers of all ages, it’s the chance to shout out loud, which brings us onto…

4. Audience interaction

Warm up those vocal cords, because you won’t be expected just to sit back and watch a pantomime. The audience plays a key part in every performance – from shouting out to assist characters on the stage, to joining in with a singalong or two.

Popular forms of audience interaction include shouting “He’s behind you!” when a villain tries to sneak up on a protagonist; yelling “Oh no he isn’t!”/”Oh yes he is!” (or variations on this) to correct a mistaken character; hollering “Hello!” to welcome a popular character to proceedings; and, of course, the absolute necessity of booing the villain whenever they enter the stage. Don’t worry – they’re used to it!

Julian Clary and Dawn French in Snow White (Photo: Paul Coltas)Julian Clary and Dawn French in Snow White (Photo: Paul Coltas)

5. Expect Dames, Princes and more

One of the most popular, but essential, characters inherited from Commedia dell’Arte is “the panto dame” – traditionally, a man dressed up to play a woman, but very unconvincingly! Similarly, lead young male characters – such as Aladdin, or any young princes – are often played by women, a practice which first became popular in the Victorian era.

6. Pantomime animals

There’s also usually at least one – or more – cast members playing an animal of some description; for example, the cow in Jack And The Beanstalk.

These performers very often share a single costume which, as you can imagine, often leads to the odd mishap here and there. Traditionally, in a “two-person” animal, one plays the front half, and the other the back – co-ordination not guaranteed.

7. Cheesy jokes galore

If you’re a fan of the kind of humour that makes everybody else around you groan – puns, word play, and jokes about pop culture in particular – you’re in for a treat. Pantomime performances are chock full of them!

“Why was Cinderella so bad at football?”
“She had a pumpkin for a coach!”

You get the gist!

The company of Dick Whittington at Lyric Hammersmith (Photo: Tristram Kenton)The company of Dick Whittington at Lyric Hammersmith (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

8. Double entendre

Of course, along with the cheesy sense of humour, there are often a few jokes aimed exclusively at the older members of the audience.

But while they can sometimes be a little risqué, the renowned skill of pantomime writers lies in making these jokes completely innocuous to the innocent ear – so don’t worry, the double entendre will fly entirely over young ones’ heads, while still leaving adults plenty to laugh about!

9. Star casting

Ever since the first Music Hall performers of the 1860s took to the stage for pantomime, festive theatre has been awash with celebrities making their own star turns on the stage.

Many pantomimes have celebrity-stuffed cast lists to add to the excitement of it all, showcasing the stars as you’ve never seen them before. Don’t believe me? Then just consider the cast of Snow White: Dawn French, Julian Clary, Danielle Hope, Charlie Stemp, Nigel Havers, Vincent and Flavia… we could go on!

So, panto beginners, if you’re looking for a show for the whole family to enjoy this Christmas, be sure to head along to your first pantomime this season – it won’t be your last!


Sign up

dick whittington london palladium pantomime snow white

Related articles

Due to the current pandemic various venues and productions are making announcements for their individual shows. Please bear with us as we try to keep this page as up to date as possible. If you find a mistake, please let us know by emailing enquiries@soltukt.co.uk. If you click through to seat selection (where you'll see either best available or a seating plan), you will be seeing the most up-to-date prices. If this differs from what we've written on the calendar, please bear with us, as those prices will update soon.

We now sell our famous TKTS Booth discounts online here at Official London Theatre.

We are now cancelling all performances up until and including 31 May 2020 to help us process existing bookings whilst we wait for further clarity from the government in terms of when we will be able to reopen.

We are so sorry that in these testing and difficult times you are not able to enjoy the show you have booked for and hope the following helps clarify next steps in respect of your tickets .

There is nothing that you need to do if your performance has been cancelled, but we do ask for your patience.

If you have booked directly with the theatre or show website for an affected performance, please be assured that they will contact you directly to arrange an exchange for a later date, a credit note/voucher or a refund. If you have booked via a ticket agent they will also be in contact with you directly.

We are processing in strict date order of performance, so you are likely to be contacted after the date you were due to go to the theatre. However, we want to reassure you that you will be contacted, and your order will be processed, but please do bear with us.

We’d like to thank everyone who has been patient and kind in dealing with their ticket providers so far and we are sorry that we cannot process your order as quickly as we would like.

Please do not contact your credit card company as that will slow the process down and put an additional burden on our box office and ticket agent teams.

In order for us to serve our audiences the best we can, please do not get in touch with your point of sale if you have booked for performances after 31 May. Please be reassured that if we have to cancel future performances you will be directly contacted by your theatre or ticket provider. Our producers continue to plan for all eventualities dependent on the individual needs of their shows and we will provide further updates on specific shows as and when they become available.

We look forward to welcoming you back into our theatres as soon as we are allowed to resume performances. In the meantime stay safe and healthy.

For more than 40 years, TKTS was our on-the-day theatre ticket box office in Leicester Square. Currently closed due to the current situation, we are now selling our great last minute seats and prices online. Click here to learn more.

While theatres are currently closed, various venues and productions are making announcements for their individual shows, including cancellations and rescheduled performances. Please check with the individual shows for details.