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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 First Published 20 December 2018, Last Updated 10 December 2020

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? Check out our roundup of shows to enjoy this December here.

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!


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