I love going to the theatre, but in London this can be a very expensive pasttime. (I solve this problem by not looking at my bank statements – sorry Mum and Dad). So here’s my best tips for seeing theatre at a reduced price and/or the best value for money:
Turn up in person at the box office with less than 30 minutes to curtain up
It’s quite simple – theatres want your money. They want your bottom on one of their seats. In the West End, there are lots of theatres in a very small area, all competing with each other, all vying for your cold, hard-earned cash. If you book your ticket online, you pay your money upfront, booking fee and all. An on-the-door buyer has the luxury of being able to walk away and go to another theatre if the price isn’t right. Use this to your advantage. If you present yourself at the box office window and ask (nicely) what’s the best seat they can offer you for, say £30, you’ll find that many box office staff will gladly give you a good deal (perhaps £10 off) or a seat for the cost of the next price bracket down. They get your money (and your bottom), you get a bit of a bargain – everyone is happy. It won’t work every time, but it’s worth a shot. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
Turn up in person at the box office at 10am (or even earlier)
This is a bit more time consuming, but worth it. Many West End theatres release their very front row of seats on the day of performance at 10am. Those tickets are generally in the region of £25 and limited to two per person – you can’t book them over the phone or reserve them for collection later – you have to get them in person and it’s first come first served. For some shows, there will inevitably be a queue starting at silly o’clock in the morning, but for others, 10am will be just fine. Shows like The Book Of Mormon hold a ticket lottery 2 and a half hours before each show (to be allowed to buy tickets) – some days you stand a better chance than others. Tickets for the row behind may be 2 or 3 times that price. I took my brother to see Rock of Ages in this manner – we had sore throats for the next 2 days (from
screaming singing along to Don’t Stop Believing), but for the atmosphere right down at the front, it was worth every penny and that extra bit of effort.
Book ‘restricted view’ seats
Tip: not all of them are that restricted. Some are incredibly so. This can mean anything from losing a smidgen of upstage left, to a safety rail in your line of vision, to losing more than 50% of one side of the stage *coughAldwychslips£11ticketscough* or a pillar in the way. You can take the mystery out of this with http://www.seatplan.com who are on a mission to review all of the actual seats in London’s theatres. The view, comfort, legroom etc etc. Browse photos and comments from people who’ve actually sat there. While the site mostly focuses on West End, they are branching out. Help them by signing up and submitting your own seat reviews.
Go to the TKTS booth in Leicester Square
There are lots of wonderful shows in the West End, so there must be more than one you want to see, right? Be brave, set aside a night to go to the theatre, toddle along to the TKTS booth where they have tickets to all the shows, some of them down to half price. Obviously the very popular ones are less likely to be discounted, but there are many bargains to be had.
See shows in preview
There are several theatre websites that I watch like a hawk for upcoming shows. London Theatre Direct, What’s On Stage etc etc. Seeing a show in its opening week can sometimes be up to £10 cheaper than if you were to book during the main run.
Book cheap seats in the stalls for a Tuesday night early in the run
Seriously, who goes to the theatre on a Tuesday? Or a Monday? Plenty of people, but far fewer than on e.g. Friday or Saturday. On a new, slightly unknown show, top price tickets can be a bit of a hard sell, so whole blocks of seats near the front are sometimes left empty. As an actor, it’s not much fun playing to thin air with all your audience bunched up at the back of the auditorium, so the ushers may move people forward to fill in the gaps. So book yourself into the cheap seats of the stalls on a quieter night and you might find yourself in for an automatic upgrade. Again, it won’t always happen, but it’s nice when it does. I’ve sat in some very expensive seats for £20!
Take an afternoon off work and go for a mid-week matinee
I discovered recently that some West End theatres vary their pricing structure quite a bit. Ticket prices may be quite steep for the evening performances, but on a matinee, massively reduced in certain seats. It’ll take a bit of trawling to find them, but my latest bargain is £20 rear stalls for American Buffalo – same seats in the evening are £75.
Book on the day that tickets are released
This doesn’t exactly save money on tickets, but it allows you to choose the best seat in your price bracket. West End shows don’t run indefinitely, they have a ‘now booking until….’ date. So when they announce an extension of 6-12 months, there’ll be a massive flood of availability. Get in there and book for a date that’s several months away.
Be a peasant at Shakespeare’s Globe for a fiver
All groundling pit tickets for Shakespeare’s Globe are £5 each (plus booking fee). Yes you have to stand, but if your back, knees, legs and feet can handle a couple of hours, it really is the best ‘seat’ in the house. Someone tall standing in front of you? You can move to get a better vantage point. If you get in the queue early (earlybirds are there an hour before), when they open the auditorium, you can pick a spot either right at the lip of the stage or leaning against one of the walls. I’m a wall-leaner myself.
The Royal Court, Sloane Square – on Mondays, all tickets are £10
With some stellar plays such as Posh, Let The Right One In and The Nether all getting transfers to the West End, The Royal Court is one to watch. They hold all of their Monday tickets off sale and only release them on the day of performance. They’re available online from 9am and the box office opens for in-person and phone bookings at 10am. You can now be ‘that person’ who smugly says “…yeah, I saw it at the Royal Court before it transferred…”
Go Downstairs at the Hampstead Theatre
The Hampstead Theatre Upstairs is churning out West End transfers at an alarming rate, and the stuff in their Downstairs studio space is pretty good too. Tickets are a wallet-friendly £12 each – and if you’re under 30*, they’re £10. (*you’ll need ID).
Pay As You Go at Southwark Playhouse
Fling £50 in the direction of Southwark Playhouse and they’ll set aside 5 tickets in an account for you. It’s then entirely up to you which shows you see and on which dates. There’s no expiry date – you use them as and when you’re ready, on whatever shows take your fancy. With full price tickets usually around the £20 mark, this is a saving not to be sniffed at. You can even take one other person with you. Bargain!
Discount ticket websites aren’t always cheaper
Always always always pricecheck when buying tickets online. Very occasionally, buying from a discount site rather than the online box office can work out more expensive.
Go to the theatre at the cinema
In the last few years, the National Theatre have been recording most (all?) of their shows and putting them out to cinemas nationwide (and then international cinemas). Cillian Murphy may say that this will be the death of live theatre, but boo to him – ntlive allowed me to see Frankenstein when tickets were like gold dust. Top price tickets for The Audience starring Helen Mirren were £126.00 – I saw it for a tenner.
Let the shows come to you with Digital Theatre
One of the best things on the internet is Digital Theatre – shows are available to rent from as little as £2.99 for 48 hours, or you can buy them top keep from £8.99 upwards. With cameras all over the auditorium, you get the best view(s) of the stage and you can watch it after work, on a lazy Sunday morning or even in bed on a laptop (theatre in your jimjams – imagine that). You can have ice cream from your own freezer – which probably won’t cost you £3.50 for 3 mouthfuls. Join the revolution.
Start a theatre blog
OK, so this is a bit more labour intensive. I started my blog in 2012, writing about the shows I see. Since then, I’ve managed to get a toe in the door writing for a theatre reviewing website. I go to a show on their behalf (for free – in exchange for a review) and press nights are usually quite fun and include a free drink and programme. I’ve seen all sorts of things I may never have booked 2-3 years ago. If you love theatre and can string a coherent sentence together, you’re already halfway there – don’t be afraid to have a different opinion to some of the big-name crits who write for the press. Just start writing.