You would like to go to the theatre more often, but you’re put off by the exorbitant cost. Yes, tickets can be pricey, particularly for the big shows in the West End of London, but you don’t have to pay £75 or £100 (or more) – with a little insider knowledge, you can often get a decent seat for about £10 to £20.
And then there are the hush-hush ways you can get free tickets for some shows.
Here, we share some of the secrets of how to bag a bargain – or at least not pay massively over the odds.
We also shine a spotlight on the seats that regular theatregoers don’t want you to know about: the cheap “restricted view” ones that really aren’t that restricted at all, and the good-value seats that don’t seem to be on many people’s radar. For example, there’s the “royal” box at Hamilton that seats two people in comfort and allows you to practice your regal wave, smug in the knowledge that you have paid far less than most of the punters sitting in the stalls and dress circle. Then there’s the leading theatre that lets you watch its shows for 10p.
Meanwhile, there are the schemes that allow people who spread the word about certain shows on Twitter or Facebook to buy tickets at a fraction of the full price.
Some of these tips and tricks are courtesy of Steve Rich, the founder of the website Theatremonkey.com, which features seat reviews and rounds up the latest cheap deals.
Pricey seats mean cheap seats
Top-end prices in the West End have risen by nearly a fifth in the space of a year, according to The Stage’s most recent annual survey, and the best seats at Hamilton and The Phantom of the Opera now cost up to £250 apiece.
But in many cases, these premium seats are subsidising much cheaper tickets aimed at bringing in new, younger audiences. In some cases, these cheap tickets are available to all; in others, they are restricted to certain groups.
For example, with Ian McKellen on Stage, the actor’s one-man show at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London that had its first performance last night and runs until 5 January, top-price seats cost up to £125. But at the same time there are 80 seats for £10 at every show, including some in the stalls.
Meanwhile, tickets went on sale this week for a new production of Cyrano de Bergerac starring James McAvoy that will run at the Playhouse Theatre in London from 27 November. While some seats cost £144.50 each, there will be 15,000 tickets at £15 for key workers, under 30s and those receiving jobseeker’s allowance or other benefits, plus 15,000 free tickets for first-time theatregoers. The first release of the £15 seats will be on 4 November at 12pm via the ATG Tickets website.
Here are some of the other notable schemes:
• Bristol Old Vic’s text message-based “Arts Ping” scheme, for students at the city’s two main universities, lets people nab last-minute seats for as little as £5.
• At Manchester Royal Exchange, students and people under 26 can get tickets costing £7 for any main house weekday show – a saving of up to 80% on the full price. This offer applies to its current production of Macbeth, which opened this week, plus upcoming shows such as Gypsy.
• The Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon runs the “RSC Key” scheme offering £5 tickets if you are 16 to 25, plus a £10 “First Time Friday” deal.
• With the “PwC £10 Previews” at the Old Vic in London, five weeks before the first preview of a show, the theatre releases at least half the seats for £10 for the first five performances. No age limit.
• National Theatre of Scotland’s Futureproof Passport programme allows those aged 14 to 26 to sign up for £5 tickets.
•Young+Free at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden, London, offers free tickets by ballot to those aged 16 to 25.
• The National Theatre’s Friday Rush where, every Friday at 1pm, £20 tickets for shows in all three theatres at the London complex the following week go on sale. All ages.
• Birmingham Rep’s Preview Club for 16- to 30-year-olds, which offers £5 preview tickets.
Sign up to TodayTix in London
Billed as “Uber for theatre tickets”, this app has become hugely popular. TodayTix offers tickets to dozens of West End and fringe shows at savings of up to 70%-plus. Shows currently featured range from 9 to 5 the Musical at the Savoy Theatre to A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic.
You can also enter lotteries to win £20 front-row tickets to shows such as Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. In addition, TodayTix allows people who spread the word about shows to buy heavily discounted “Rush” tickets: for example, you pay £25 in the case of the musicals Fiddler on the Roof, Waitress, Six and Come From Away, and £25 and £15 respectively for the plays The Night of the Iguana and The Son. Rush tickets are similar to day seats and are usually released on a fastest-finger-first basis at 10am. To “unlock” them, you have to share a post promoting the show on Facebook or Twitter, and you can typically buy up to two tickets.
Meanwhile, every week, 40 tickets for each performance of the London production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child the following week are released via TodayTix priced at £40 (£20 per part).
Sign up for email alerts
Assuming you don’t mind the extra traffic into your inbox (maybe set up an email address specifically for this), you should sign up for as many ticket agency and theatre newsletters and alerts as possible. They often have details of decent discounts and offers. ATG Tickets and Delfont Mackintosh are just two of the biggies.
The ‘upper circle trick’
This is where you buy the cheapest tickets in the upper circle or balcony. Rich says: “On a quiet night the theatre will close them, and you will be promoted to the costlier seats downstairs. This works on less popular shows only, of course!”
Linked to this, it may be worth opting to pick up your tickets from the box office on the night rather than having them posted, as it is then easier for staff to upgrade you to better seats.
Watch the sites like a hawk
Many venues use dynamic pricing, where the cost of a ticket changes according to demand. Sometimes this means prices will drop at the last minute. If you have your eye on a show, check the ticket site(s) a day or two before a performance, and then from around 10am on the day. Sometimes bargains will pop up – unsold day seats, for example, or house seats originally held back for guests/VIPs etc.
Sign up to an audience club or ‘seat-filling’ service
There are a number of below-the-radar clubs whose job it is to build word-of-mouth buzz and ultimately make sure the actors are not gazing out at rows of empty seats. They do this by discreetly dishing out free or very cheap tickets, often at very short notice (for free tickets there is usually an admin charge). Once you have signed up, you will usually receive regular emails about shows. You will often need to act fast, and invariably you have to keep quiet about how you got your tickets. If you claim a free ticket, it’s highly frowned-upon to then not turn up, and you are encouraged to show your support by maybe buying a drink or a programme.
Leading clubs include ShowFilmFirst and My Box Office (the latter charges a £15 annual fee). Unfortunately, at the time of writing, three of the clubs – the Audience Club, Central Tickets and PlaybyPlay UK – were not accepting new applications.
Secret seats and lotteries
Several theatres run “secret seats” schemes. For example, at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh you can book up to four unreserved tickets for a show, priced at £10 each, and you will find out where you are sitting on the day. The Rose Theatre in Kingston upon Thames runs an almost identical scheme. And the Young Vic in London offers £10 Lucky Dip tickets.
Meanwhile, some of the biggest shows run lotteries. Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre has one where you can win the chance to buy up to two tickets for £10 each, while The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales theatre has a similar scheme where you pay £20.
Schemes for soldiers, nurses etc
Tickets for Troops provides free tickets to members of the armed forces. Meanwhile, Manchester Royal Exchange is among those offering discounts to NHS staff (20% off in this case).
The top-value memberships
For example, become a Friend of the Royal Court in London for £35 and you can book best-seats-in-the-house tickets in advance for all its main productions on Monday nights for £12 a time. As one Guardian reader commented, it’s “an utter steal”.
Seats you can get for a steal
With their baffling pricing structures, colour coding and occasional warnings, the seating plans on ticket websites aren’t always easy to navigate.
You spot a seat that’s much cheaper than the ones around it, but there must be a reason. When they say “restricted view,” just how restricted is it? How big is that pillar they mention?
For the full low-down, check out seat review sites Theatremonkey.com and SeatPlan. In the meantime, here we identify a few of the seats that those in the know like to keep close to their chests.
•The “great value” boxes at Hamilton Most of the stalls and dress circle tickets at the hit musical are £100 to £250 each, and you might have imagined that sitting in your own private box would involve paying top-whack – but you can play at being a royal for £37.50 a seat. There are four “grand circle” two-seater boxes (A, B, C and D) where you pay £37.50 per person, plus two “royal circle” two-seater boxes (B and D) at £57.50 a seat. All come with a warning that these offer a side view and you will miss the side of the set. But many fans rave about them. Here’s what one punter who sat in grand circle box A told Theatremonkey: “Having sat in £100 seats three times, I needed to save money! So at £37.50 per seat, this two-seater ‘box’ gives you lots of space (as chairs are free-standing), privacy, a bit of exclusivity and a great view. So you have to lean over the rail a bit and can’t see a tiny bit of the stage, but you are so close to the stage that it really doesn’t matter… If I had a party of four, I would go for Boxes A/B or C/D, so all sat together, and for £150 in a totally private space, you will have a wonderful time! The privacy is brilliant! £100 or £200 each for premium seats? Not for me any more!”
•Stalls seat N7 at London’s Harold Pinter Theatre This restricted-view seat is often a total bargain. For the current Ian McKellen one-man show run it’s just £10 – even though N6 and N8 are £65. And at many recent performances it was just £15. The catch? This seat comes with the warning “pillar in view, may miss certain moments,” but having sat there myself, it’s not a big problem – lean slightly to the side and you’ll be fine.
•The cheap “nests” at London’s Wyndham’s Aka balcony seats A5 and A26. “They are literally miniature padded private ‘nests’”, says Theatremonkey. They are £15 or £20 each for Tom Stoppard’s new play Leopoldstadt, which opens in January.
•10p standing tickets at London’s Royal Court These go on sale one hour before each main house performance. They are apparently “severely restricted view,” but you get to see actors of the calibre of Toby Jones (currently appearing in Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp.)for the price of a couple of cola bottle sweets.
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