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Panto for the Perplexed

by on 5 December 2017

Panto for the Perplexed

Grierson’s Guide for the Pantomime First-Timer

A Theatre Thought by Matthew Grierson

Part One in a Seasonal Look at the Panto

London is a cosmopolitan capital, home to people from all over the world. So it’s possible that plenty of its citizens are poorly acquainted with the distinctly British art of the panto, and may be mystified by its popularity and its place in the national culture. Whether we consider them fortunate or unfortunate, it’s for those people that I offer the following, to bring them up to speed in time to catch a show or two this festive season.

Part music hall, part Commedia dell’arte, the panto is essentially a rendition of a classic fairy story or folk tale such as Cinderella or Dick Whittington, staged according to a host of its own peculiar theatrical conventions. The style is sufficiently deeply engrained in the British psyche that, although many of us won’t have seen a show since childhood, we still immediately recognise (and often wince) when we come across its tropes, so widespread they are. But don’t be frightened – the more of these you know, the more fun watching a panto will be.

Frocks appeal

One of the cornerstones of the pantomime is the dame, a larger-than-life portrayal of a woman –usually an aunty, ugly sister or queen of some description – played by a man under the thickest, most outrageous make-up and camper than, well, Christmas.

Christopher Biggins is the undisputed king of queens, the duke of dames, if you will, and if you’re around Richmond for the festive season, you’ll be able to see him give his Widow Twankey on the Green in Aladdin …so to speak. To many, Biggins’s name is a byword for panto dame, and he has been donning frocks around the country for close to fifty years – making him the genuine article, compared to the more recent trend for big-name stars to get in on the act.


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Christopher Biggins goes into Richmond Theatre     Photograph by Craig Sugden


When it used to be your former soap actor or past-it stand-up taking on a panto role, there have of late been a number of high-profile players roped in, possibly to their own bewilderment. Stellar Stateside names such as David Hasselhoff, Henry Winkler and Priscilla Presley have all twirled their moustaches (literally or metaphorically), while closer to home (real-life) Dame Joan Collins and Sir Ian McKellen have rummaged through their dressing-up boxes, the latter certain to have ticked off another long-nursed ambition in doing so.

Girls who (look) like boys

For all the dragged-up men, it’s important that, more conscious of gender parity as we now are, the ladies also get a look-in on the transvestism. It’s not only Shakespeare who offers a native tradition of gender-bending after all, and the role of principal boy, the young hero of our story, is often taken by a sylph-like young woman.

Given this all-round cross-dressing, it’s no surprise that pantomimes are often laden with innuendo and ribaldry, the idea being that, although it’s a family audience, such remarks should go over the heads of the kiddywinks and ensure that the mums and dads – that is, the actual ticket-buyers – are getting their money’s worth. The children in their turn are offered the chance to be summoned up on stage, individually or en masse, to help in key parts of the action, and they are, literally, catered for with sweeties showered from the stage. The presence of the children also gives the parents an excuse to enjoy slapstick humour, which is as unsubtle as the smut is. There’s usually a pantomime horse, or, in Jack and the Beanstalk, a cow, comprising two artistes taking the front and back ends of the barnyard costume respectively, their ignominy spared only by their remaining unseen. Whether these parts are as sought after among Equity members as the dame or the villain – sorry, ‘Boo, hiss! It’s the villain!’ –is debatable, but undoubted skill and co-ordination is required. Fancy having to be Warhorse but with only a pair of you, and not the elbow room for the puppetry?



Some strange animals escape from Richmond Theatre’s panto.   Photograph by Craig Sugden


Of course, no-one’s attempting to pretend that there are real farm animals prancing around onstage. The key thing about panto is that the cast and the audience are both in on the joke – which is why you’ve got to know what you’re letting yourself in for. The performers do go out of their way to help you, with lines often flung direct to the audience like the confectionery, while the dame will usually introduce the hero and villain to encouraging cheers or jeers from the punters as appropriate. There are sudden, anachronistic references to TV shows or the news, spoken with a pronounced wink. And, of course, there are the staple scenes when the hero is looking for the villain and asks the audience if they can see him. ‘He’s behind you!’ we’re expected to chorus, at which point the hero makes a laboured show of looking around and the villain nips behind some conveniently placed scenery. ‘Oh no he isn’t!’ says the hero, turning back to us – during which time his adversary has reappeared. ‘Oh yes he is!’ we respond, ad infinitum. Or at least until the plot catches up.



Jack and the Beanstalk at the Lyric,  Hammersmith


It’s before you!

This might not sound like either your traditional theatregoer’s or your serious thesp’s cup of tea. However, aside from being a great deal of fun – please, don’t be deterred by the above – panto is a surefire money-spinner for theatres themselves, which otherwise eke their budgets out through the year, in this age of multimedia entertainment and economic uncertainty. So if you want to support your local theatre, and keep the family occupied for at least some of the time between family get-togethers and the festive telly, packing yourselves off to a panto is a perfect way to do so.


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Hackney Empire’s Sleeping Beauty          Photography by Robert Workman


Quite apart from what’s going on elsewhere in the capital –such as the Palladium’s Dick Whittington and the Hackney Empire’s Sleeping Beauty – in this corner of London, you not only have Richmond’s Aladdin, but there’s another at the Beck in Hayes as well as Hammersmith Lyric’s Jack and the Beanstalk. In fact, there must be quite a few magic beans around as there are also versions of J & t B in Croydon, at the New Wimbledon and Putney Arts. Meanwhile Hillingdon is having a ball with its Cinderella, as is the OSO in Barnes, and Questors is flying high with Mother Goose. So in short, you’re not short of options.

Whatever you choose, it’s sure to be fun, isn’t it? … … Oh yes it is ! …

Matthew Grierson
December 2017






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  1. Jack and the Beanstalk | Mark Aspen

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