Sexual innuendo, raunchy jokes, exuberant drag and girls dressed as boys in thigh-length boots; it doesn’t sound much like a kids’ show I know, but welcome to the world of pantomime!

What is a pantomime?

Pantomimes, or pantos for short, can trace their roots back to the sixteenth century and Italy’s Commedia dell’Arte, featuring the mischievous character of Harlequin. By the early eighteenth century these shows of music, slapstick comedy and acrobatics were so popular that in 1732 Harlequin actor John Rich used his panto profits to build Covent Garden Theatre. The Theatres Act of 1843 permitted the use of dialogue in all plays, which led to the introduction of the jokes, puns and cheeky word play so integral to pantos today. By the end of the nineteenth century, extravagant costumes became a key part of the shows which usually opened on Boxing Day, hence the link with Christmas.

Traditionally a woman plays the role of Principal Boy and a man plays the Dame. The Principal Boy usually wears a short, belted tunic and thigh-length boots, allowing for much thigh-slapping to take place, whilst the dame gets the most gaudy, glittery, over-the-top costume of the night. If you were playing panto casting bingo, you’d be hoping for a burly retired boxer or rugby player for the dame, a glamorous soap opera/reality TV star for the principal boy, a comedian or magician for the sidekick and a singer (ideally a veteran diva or ex-boy band member) for any other role.

In stark contrast to most other theatre, audience participation is actively encouraged in the world of panto. This will be led and prompted by the cast, within traditional rules:

  • Booing and hissing of baddies (don’t worry, you’ll know who the baddies are!)
  • Warning the goodies when a baddie is around, or they are searching for something; spoiler alert, the warning is ‘It’s behind you!’
  • Sympathising with goodies; a long ‘Aaaaaaaahh’ if you feel sorry for them
  • Disagreeing with baddies; they will say ‘Oh yes it is!’ to which the audience shouts ‘Oh no it isn’t!’ (or the other way round)
  • Cheapo Top Tip: If you go to the very last performance of a pantomime, it may not seem to run quite as smoothly as you might expect. This is traditionally when the cast and crew prank each other during the performance, leaving the actor to style it out on stage. Great fun for the grown-ups.

    London Pantos for 2023

    Cinderella at the New Wimbledon Theatre, Wimbledon

    The majestic Edwardian auditorium of the New Wimbledon Theatre is a perfect backdrop to this classic, much-loved panto. The original rags-to-riches story, get ready to cheer on Cinders and boo her wicked stepsisters as she finds her way to her handsome prince.

    When is it on?
    Friday 8th December 2023 – Sunday 7th January 2024

    Who’s in it?
    Craig Revel Horwood as the Wicked Stepmother, Pete Firman as Buttons, Alison Jiear as the Fairy Godmother and Daniel Norford as Dandini.

    Best for:
    Those south of the river who want to go to a proper panto without trekking in to central London.

    Aladdin at the Hackney Empire, Hackney

    Hackney Empire pantos are more of a good clean fun, community affair; this is reflected in the fact that children of all ages are welcome, with children aged 3 and under sitting on an adult’s lap getting in free of charge. Panto veteran Clive Rowe both directs and stars as Widow Twankey, with an obligatory Eastenders actor in the cast.

    When is it on?
    Saturday 18th November – Sunday 31st December 2023

    Who’s in it?
    Clive Rowe as Widow Twankey, Fred Double as Aladdin, Natasha Lewis as Abby-na-zaaar! and Kat B as the Genie

    Best for:
    Those with a young family, and a chance to see the best Dame in pantoland

    Peter Pan at the London Palladium, Soho

    The OG of London panto venues, expect extravagant sets, lavish costumes and every beloved panto trope you could hope for. With Julian Clary cast as Seaman Smee, we’re expecting the innuendo and double-entendre game to be particularly strong this year.

    When is it on?
    Sat 9th December 2023 – Sun 14th January 2024

    Who’s in it?
    Julian Clary as Smee, Jennifer Saunders as Captain Hook and Louis Gaunt as Peter Pan, with Gary Wilmot in full Dame mode as Mrs Henrietta Hook and Nigel Havers as, er, Pirate Nigel.

    Best for:
    A star-studded cast, and the ultimate panto experience.

    Jack and the Beanstalk at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, Stratford

    Photo by Theatre Royal Stratford East

    Another lovely local panto suitable for all ages, this year it features a burping, farting giant in the sky which should be a crowd-pleaser for the kids. Children under 2 can sit on an adult’s lap for just £1. This is one of the most popular pantomimes outside of central London and well worth the trip; if you’re an east London local, lucky you.

    Cheapo Top Tip: There is a staggered price range for tickets depending on when you book, so get in early for the best savings!

    When is it on?
    Saturday 18th November 2023 – Saturday 6th January 2024

    Who’s in it?
    Nikhil Singh Rai as Jack, Savanna Jeffrey as Winnie the Moo (the cow) and Nathan Kiley as Jack’s mum.

    Best for:
    Those with a young family, and panto-loving east Londoners who don’t fancy the West End.

    Odyssey: A Heroic Pantomime at the Jermyn Street Theatre, West End

    Photo by Charles Court Opera

    Charles Court Opera traditionally offer ‘boutique pantos’ with a more classic literary inspiration than the usual fairy tale; this year’s co-production with the Jermyn Street Theatre is based on Homer’s epic poem.

    Expect the normal panto banter though; it is family-friendly (recommended age is 8+) but they also have adult-only shows, where the naughtiness is ramped up a notch – and you don’t have to borrow your friend’s kids as an excuse to get your annual panto fix.

    Cheapo Top Tip: This is another one with a staggered price range for tickets, for all you early bird Cheapos.

    When is it on?
    Thursday 23rd November – Sunday 31st December 2023

    Who’s in it?
    Emily Cairns, Meriel Cunningham and fellow castmates each play several roles throughout the evening.

    Best for:
    Eccentric fun and kid-free options.

    Other Christmas Shows

    The Snowman at the Peacock Theatre, West End

    Back for its 26th year with Sadler’s Wells in the West End, journey to the North Pole with Raymond Briggs’s famous snowman for an evening of magic, dance and storytelling. It also features a live orchestra and one of the most famous songs ever. All together now: ‘We’re walking in the air . . . ‘

    When is it on?
    Saturday 18th November – Saturday 30th December 2023

    A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic, Waterloo

    Photo by Hugo Glendinning

    Christopher Eccleston stars as Scrooge in Jack Thorne’s adaptation of Dickens’s classic Christmas tale. It’s suitable for children aged 8+ but the audience will span all ages and connections. It’s a lovely way to get those festive feels – and The Old Vic will be raising money for City Harvest London throughout the run.

    When is it on?
    Saturday 11th November 2023 – Saturday 6th Jan 2024

    The Nutcracker at the London Coliseum, Covent Garden

    Photo by Laurent Liotardo/ENB

    Nothing says it’s nearly Christmas like the English National Ballet’s production of this festive favourite (except maybe that half-opened advent calendar with the dodgy chocolate Santas). Adventures and romance abound, along with gorgeous scenery and costumes that whisk you into a magical world.

    Cheapo Top Tip: Children must be aged 5 or over to attend, but there’s a family-friendly performance on 6th January where under-5s are allowed too.

    When is it on?
    Thursday 14th December 2023 – Sunday 7th January 2024

    Shows for the Grown-Ups

    Bernie Dieter’s Club Kabarett at Underbelly Boulevard, Soho

    Bernie Dieter | Photo by Craig Sugden

    Leave the kids at home for this one. Get your Grinch on and escape the festive season altogether or swap your Christmas jumper for sequins and spikes at this sexy, Weimar-punk show with spectacular aerial artists, pole dancers, fire eaters and so much more. Entertainment of the highest order.

    When is it on?
    Sunday 29th October 2023 – Saturday 6th Jan 2024

    La Clique at the Leicester Square Spiegeltent, Leicester Square

    Photo by La Clique

    One just for Cheapos who are 16+, Olivier-Award-winning La Clique is a mixture of flirtatious cabaret, comedy and circus. Expect acrobats, contortionists, aerial artists, a foot-juggling clown – and that’s before the full cast list has been released.

    When is it on?
    Wednesday 8th November 2023 – Saturday 6th January 2024

    These two come with a Parental Advisory sticker – please be aware that between them these shows contain real flame, partial nudity, haze, flashing lights, danger, loud noises, strong language and adult themes. (Wow – that’s what we call value for money.)

    Jack and His Giant Bigstalk at the Prince of Wales, Drury Lane

    The clue is in the title, really; that, and that the Evil Queen is called Genetalia. This hilarious X-rated adult panto features filthy jokes, classic pop anthems including I Will Suvive and Wannabe, lots of glitter and – you have been warned – audience participation. Seating is unallocated and the bar will be open before and during the performance (hint – it’s behind you!).

    When is it on?
    Friday 8th December – Friday 22nd December 2023.

    Written by:
    BIO: Freelance writer, flâneuse and former blogger at London Girl About Town, Amanda is dedicated to sharing the latest on London's restaurants, bars, hidden quirks and general wonderfulness.
    Filed under: Things to Do

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