Types of performance glossary: Beginner’s guide

Charlotte Marshall explains all about the types of performance you can see in London theatres.

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Saying you don’t like theatre is a bit like saying you don’t like cheese. Sure, you might find Brie a bit blah but have you tried Stilton? There are as many types of performance as there are styles of literature or genres of film. We’re here to offer you a quick rundown as to what each one is. One of them will definitely be for you, we promise.

Ballet

English National Ballet's Nutcracker at London Coliseum
Dating back to the 15th century, ballet is as popular as ever. Jaw-dropping to watch, the dance form combines beautiful movement with back-breaking flexibility and strength. Ballet’s most famous aspect is the pointe slipper. These specially adapted shoes allow the dancers to balance on their toes. Swan Lake is arguably the most famous ballet of all, but if tutus and Tchaikovsky don’t appeal, many modern companies are bringing ballet bang up to date and into the 21st century.

Cabaret


Not just a punchy song sung by Liza Minnelli, cabaret is one of theatre’s most colourful, varied and informal types of performance. Cabaret can feature anything from music, dance and songs to drag and comedy, so check for details before you book. Often cabaret is performed with table seating. It is just as likely to be found at a bar as at a theatre.

Comedy

Griff Rhys Jones, Lee Mack and Ryan Gage in The Miser at Garrick Theatre (Image: Helen Maybanks)
If theatre seems a sober pastime, you’ve clearly never been to a classic Alan Ayckbourn comedy of errors or heard of Richard Bean’s hysterical One Man, Two Guvnors. Making people smile has always been an integral part of theatre. Thousands of plays are written purely to make the audience laugh until they cry. There is even a Best New Comedy prize at the annual Olivier Awards.

Drama

Laura Donnelly and Paddy Considine in The Ferryman (Image: Johan Persson)
The Ferryman, a drama – types of performance

Of course, not all performances are a laugh a minute. A drama is a play or musical that takes a more serious tone. A drama may be designed to stir a social or political debate or it may just spin an intriguing – often emotional – tale. The best dramas leave you seeing the world a little differently…

Farce

The Play That Goes Wrong, a farce – types of performance

Slapstick, horseplay and the ridiculous are the pillars of a romping good farce. Head to a farce and you’re in for a gloriously silly experience where it’s likely that whatever can go wrong, will. Expect to suspend disbelief and laugh until your belly aches. Famous farces include Noises Off, Boeing Boeing and, more recently, The Play That Goes Wrong.

History plays

Antic Disposition's Richard III (Image: Scott Rylander)
A history play does exactly what is says on the tin. You are transported back in time to a dramatic retelling of a historic event. The most famous history plays are Shakespeare’s many fascinating and sometimes unnervingly relevant tales of former kings, great battles and politically pivotal moments in time.

Immersive theatre


In recent years, the demand has risen for theatre that puts you, the audience, bang in the centre of the action. There’s no need to take your seat for an immersive performance; instead you might find yourself sleeping on a camp bed for an overnight performance of Macbeth in a deserted tower block. Or wearing a mask to become voyeur as a story unfolds in front of you over multiple floors. It’s the chance to choose your own adventure or get up close and intimate with the action.

Improvisation

Showstopper! The Improvised Musical

You know that anxiety-ridden dream you have where you are on stage but can’t remember your lines? Well, some people choose to do this for a living. Throwing out the script, an improvised performance is entirely made up on the spot and will likely be very, very funny. You can even go to improvised musicals!

Kitchen sink drama

Characterised as intensely real and often gritty, a kitchen sink drama is a play that holds an uncompromising mirror up to humanity and society. The form developed after the Second World War and is still one of theatre’s most popular types of drama.

Melodrama

A melodrama is the polar opposite of a kitchen sink drama. Less common on today’s stage, the melodrama deliberately overplays emotions, and situations can verge on the unbelievable. It’s a playful, over-the-top form of performance that one day you might just find yourself in the mood for.

Mime

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Forget the image of a monochrome-clad performer, mime is a hugely varied art form that has one central idea: the performers don’t speak. Story and character are played out through movement, which can create performances that are humorous, visually spectacular or moving. London even has its own Mime Festival to celebrate the eclectic talent in the field.

Musical

The Phantom Of The Opera, a musical – types of performance

One of theatre’s most popular types of performance is the musical; a story told with the help of song and dance. Productions vary vastly in style, from the razzmatazz and jazz hands of Chicago to the drama of The Phantom Of The Opera.

Opera

Lucia Di Lammermoor at Royal Opera House
An opera sees classical performers sing dramatically to an epic score, usually performed by a live orchestra. There are dozens of famous operas, from La Bohème to La Traviata, but there are also companies writing modern pieces. Operas may be performed in a different language, but there will usually be captions – or surtitles – above the stage, so you can follow the story.

Operetta

An operetta can be thought of as “opera light”. It’s generally lighter in tone and content. Gilbert and Sullivan are England’s most famous operetta composers.

Pantomime

Cinderella at Hackney Empire
As English as a cream tea, pantomime remains one of the country’s favourite festive traditions. A Christmas family treat, pantomimes are a colourful mix of songs, slapstick, terrible puns and good cheer. They’re also often based on traditional stories like Dick Whittington or Cinderella.

Pastoral

Not so common a style for modern plays, pastoral pieces portray “rural” life and are an ode to country living. The most famous pastoral play is arguably Shakespeare’s As You Like It, set in the fictional Forest of Arden.

Physical theatre


Physical theatre hit the mainstream with companies such as Frantic Assembly and the West End’s beloved production of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time. It mixes straight drama with cleverly choreographed, stylised movement. This physicality can do anything from conjuring up a plane on stage using just the performers’ bodies to showing the inner workings of a character’s mind or bringing vibrancy to scene changes.

Tragedy

Hamlet at Almeida Theatre
It could be a weepie, it could be gruesome or it could be a plot of treachery but tragedies all have one thing in common: there’s not going to be a happy ending. You might need tissues or a stiff drink for after the (hopefully not too bloody) ending.

Two-/three-hander

Types of performance vary from boasting ensemble casts in their dozens to much smaller, more intimate companies of actors. It’s very common for plays to have just two or three actors in the cast, hence the terms two-hander and three-hander.

Learn more about theatre with our beginner’s guides to parts of a theatre, types of theatre and where to sit.