Pantomime Format

What is British Panto?

British pantomime (or ‘panto’ as it is known in the UK), is a form of theatre entertainment based mostly, but not exclusively on a fairy tale. It is performed during the winter months and is traditionally thought of as a Christmas entertainment. It is a truly family orientated form of entertainment and is usually a British child’s first experience of live theatre.

Panto is a broad style of entertainment that emphasises audience participation, with much warning of the hero by the audience shouting “he’s behind you” and so on The whole thing is supported by songs and music and dressed to look spectacular. It includes a Dame character who acts as a kind of earthy chorus, much like the nurse in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Except of course that everything is much broader and we know that there will be a happy ending. The dame is always absurdly overdressed and is traditionally played by a man in drag.

There are many other traditions, but none that are central to making it work. The most noticeable of these is that the hero is often played by a female in tights. Another is that the witches and fairies traditionally talk in verse (usually rhyming pentameters).

British panto is a form of entertainment that is serious, comic, absurd, poetic and surreal all at the same time. It is very different from European and American ideas of pantomime and is probably the last living folk art in the UK. It a brilliant, vibrant, poetic work of art and offers wonderful possibilities for actors, singers, dancers and of course, writers.

What does a good panto need?

  • All good pantos must have a strong plot with mythic overtones (fairy stories have deep psychological roots and have been honed by telling thousands of times).
  • Include the dame and other comic characters, who can comment on the myth and magic from an earthy point of view.
  • Use music that will appeal across the age ranges, to help carry the emotion and connect with the audience.
  • Include supernatural characters, who let you explore deeper than the everyday.
  • Start with an initial crisis – then a recovery from it, followed by an even worse crisis and finally a wedding. Here it is spelt out a bit more fully.

CinderellaSnow White
Initial crisisStep mother and ugly sisters arriveWicked Queen throws out Snow White
First recoveryFairy Godmother helps her to the ballRescued by the dwarves
Happy interludeFinds PrinceHappy home-making for dwarves
Worse CrisisLose touch with princeWitch poisons Snow White
Final RecoveryGlass slipperKiss by prince
WeddingMarries princeMarries prince

A form like this is ideal as it breaks naturally into two halves – the second half starting with the happy interlude and then marching forwards fast to the final crisis and resolution.

Why base panto on a myth?

Myths have deep resonance inside us all and if you try to put the clothing of the panto onto a non-mythic story (or still worse onto no story at all) the actors and the audience will have nothing to respond to. The trappings of a pantomime do not work unless they are dressing something that matters to the audience and actors. So settle for myth or don’t do it at all. Someone once suggested to me, that it might be a good idea to base a panto on a popular TV soap opera. Personally, I can’t think of anything more designed to kill panto off completely.

Are fairy stories still relevant?

There has been over the past 40 years or so, a lot of criticism of fairy tales as painting a false and destructive picture of women as submissive creatures totally dependent on a man. This is basically a failure to see the substance through the trappings. Cinderella (to address the classic case) is the story of a woman escaping from the influence of a powerful mother figure so that she can herself grow and in turn become a mother. This is something that all women who have children must do. Don’t be scared away from fairy stories by views that are no longer fashionable and are fortunately now well past their sell-by date.

Of course, you can happily dress your heroine in contemporary clothes, give her ambitions to be a business executive or a champion boxer or a field marshal, the stories are strong enough to accept such trappings which really have little more meaning than the traditional crinoline. Above all, give your heroine plenty of good lines. After all, she is usually the star of the show.

Getting the right structure

The best basic structure is the simplest and the simplest is this…

Divide the story into 2 halves with two crises. The second crisis is normally the first crisis writ large. The first half should end with the resolution of the first crisis and (maybe) rumblings of the second crisis on the horizon. The second half should be shorter faster and more dramatic than the first. The time for not-quite-relevant scenes and songs is in the first half, maybe at the start of the second, and (just possibly) as a sort of teaser at the crux of the action.

Telling the story

The plot should be brought in early on, preferably in scene 1. Pantos traditionally do not have subplots – the comic element is more a chorus commenting on the main plot. Comic scenes can be effectively `interspersed between plot scenes in the first half.

This has the advantage of allowing the comic scenes to be played on the front of the scenes and gives time for the scenery to be changed at the back. (Pantos give you the possibility of having beautiful scenery so use it.)

The second half should have fewer comic scenes (maybe one or two) and, those there are, should move the plot forward. The plot is getting exciting and the audience are getting restive if you throw in too much irrelevance.

Pantos traditionally end the plot two scenes before the end of the panto. The last scene but one is a community song. The final scene is the wedding and the applause for the actors and, maybe, a reprise of the best song. Keep the final scene short and sharp. It is often a problem in commercial panto which typically uses new spectacular costumes to breathe some life into it – for me this rarely works.

Plot – Comedy – Music

Shaping the scenes

Just as the complete pantomime needs shaping, so do the individual scenes within it. A good analogy is with a piece of music with themes coming and going and being repeated in slightly changed forms. Let’s move from the sublime to the ridiculous. Here are two rules…

  1. Everyone should come in running and go off running.
  2. The situation must change during the course of a scene. That is, each scene must add something to the story and/or to the audience’s understanding of the story.

Rule 1 is to be broken frequently in the letter but hardly ever in the spirit. Rule 2 should never be broken at all.

More about the rules …

Rule 1 can more acceptably be put as “anyone who comes on must have a good reason for coming – anyone who goes off must have a good reason for going”.

Rule 2 is that each scene must change the situation. Think of the beginning and ending of the scene. A scene should begin with a high point and end with a higher point.

As the plot winds up (that’s until the last of the action scenes), the tension should be higher at the end of every scene than at the beginning. Towards the end, when the tension is being resolved, the requirement is not so strong. Ends of course have to be real resolutions of the plot with the “Oh thank goodness it’s all worked out” factor. “Oh, thank goodness she’s escaped”, “Oh thank goodness she’s married the prince” or whatever.

Special scenes

A few things about specific scenes. Mostly random thoughts that don’t fit anywhere else:

Opening scene: Should start with a bit of a bang to get the plot moving, before the scene ends. A song is nice, getting the whole cast on at the start (a tradition in commercial panto) is probably more bother than it’s worth, particularly if you are managing a cast of children.

Scene 2: Commonly used to introduce the comic characters, and to do such explanation of the plot as is necessary. Sometimes a talk to the audience by the Dame character works well, but there is nothing set in stone about this scheme.

Slapstick scene: The audience (especially children) love slapstick scenes and so do the cast. Traditionally these are either food fights or wallpapering scenes. Food is probably psychologically best, as it contrasts effectively with the magic element of pantomime. Costume people and stage hands hate slapstick as it is mess to clear up. But such scenes are worth their weight in gold.

Community Songs: The audience love a good community song and the best time for it, is after the action is over and before the final scene. It should be a song that the audience will know well, or changed words to a well-known tune. ‘Darling Clementine’ or something else that is easily singable. The words should be relevant to the audience and the occasion, but don’t need to be relevant to the plot as the show has almost ended.

Final scene: This should be short and sharp, but be sure to give time for everyone to take their bow and have their applause. A reprise of the best song is often a good way to end.

So, read through your chosen script (preferably aloud and recorded) and be ruthless about things that need changing or cutting. Seek a second opinion, and heed it.

Rhyming verse

It’s fun for characters to speak in verse, but the danger is they use a couplet to express every thought. Consider the following two pieces and then aim for the latter.

“We are the fairies of the wood,
We’re always kind and always good.
We’ve come here in the darkest night,
To help save beautiful Snow White.”

“We are the fairies brave and bright,
We’ve come to save our dear Snow White.”


Used to heighten the mood, comment on the story, and probably just because the audience like a good tune. These are the reasons to have it in your panto, and also because the actors like to sing it.

You can use music specially written for your panto. But there is a good case for using existing songs, that the audience will know. Ideally the song should move the story forward (for example the Principal Boy And Principal Girl can sing a duet to establish that they are in love). But a strong story can withstand several songs that are put in for just the fun of it (in a weak story the song is often a merciful relief for the audience, from the weak story).

You can read more about music in pantos and the licensing rules that apply here.

Where should songs be placed?

  • Chorus songs at the beginning and end of each act.
  • Comic song in the middle of act 1 and maybe in act 2 but don’t break the action.
  • A couple of solos or duets where they are needed to bolster the emotional content (or just where the actors want them or where you have thought of an idea that seems too good to throw away.

Cast – Children

Rule 1: Give them lines with real emotions to portray. Don’t underestimate them, they will probably be better at understanding emotions than you are. There is an age, up to about seven, where your actors will not understand much. But even then a good story will help.

Rule 2: Don’t give them adult jokes. This can at times be an irresistible temptation and will probably get a laugh, but should be avoided if not absolutely necessary for the story. Just revise them carefully and cut out most such jokes (about politics, local affairs, sex and so on). The appeal of children in panto comes from their ability to be themselves. Let them be naturally cute or not cute at all. Adults idea of cute is awful. All children are not brilliant actors, but all children can enjoy it if you show them how. Imitation is how children learn, so don’t deny it them in the field of creativity.

The chance to be a star is something that every child needs. Children also relish wicked parts. These give them the opportunity to be wicked without any consequences. It is wonderful for them. This is another reason for avoiding adult jokes.

The time when they say “their” lines is often a worry for children. Try and make groups of people (seven dwarves for example) always talk in the same order as this will help them to get used to their cue line. Don’t make too much of learning the script. Most kids take it in their stride, particularly if they are expected to. An expectation that all the lines will come, is often all you need.

Try and avoid getting parents involved in teaching their children the script, as it is almost always counter-productive. The social and political rivalry and the determination that their child should be the best, can make life a real misery for the director and destroy a show. You can expect parent management to be as much of a problem as child management.

Cast – Adult

Remember actors are acting mostly to please the directors. If you leave it to them, and expect it all to come from “inside” they will not have a clue what to do and, come the performance, this fact will be obvious. Show your actors what you want. First they will imitate you, then they will grow into it and, if they are good, they will grow beyond what you showed them. Some will, some won’t.

Be willing to alter your script to please your actors, but don’t go to the point of destroying the plot. In the same vein, be ready to throw away lines the actor hates, even if you love them. Don’t make the villains totally comic, this destroys the plot and eventually destroys the play. You need to let children be funny too. That is good for them as well.

Final recap

  • Your panto must have a good mythical plot.
  • Include the main traditional elements.
  • Mustn’t be too “poetic”.
  • Don’t indulge yourself by filling it with personal jokes and self-references.
  • And finally. If it’s not funny or doesn’t help with the plot – cut it!