The secret to cheap theatre tickets

Going to the theatre need not cost an arm and a leg – here’s how to see the best shows in town on a shoestring

One of the perennial complaints about London theatre is the price of tickets. But while tourists might be happy to shell-out six figures for the latest West End smash, those of us who consider ourselves ‘in-the-know’ have lots of tricks to save cash. Here are six of my best:

Day seats

Just like on Broadway, almost every West End theatre holds back 40 or so seats – usually the front row – which they sell for rock-bottom prices on the day of the performance. If you’re curious, just phone the box office and ask – they will tell you the deal. The standard rate is usually £15 (the people sitting behind you will pay five times that) with tickets going on sale at 10am. Don’t be fooled by the saddos who queue from 6am: in my experience, unless there’s a megastar in the show, you can nearly always get a ticket by turning up at 9.30. On Saturdays, when the shows play twice, your chance is doubled.

Off-season

If you need to plan in advance, or don’t fancy schlepping down to St Martin’s Lane on a Saturday morning, one of the easiest ways to get hold of a good-value ticket is to opt for the less popular times. Christmas holidays, when West End shows play to half-empty houses, are always good for this. But there’s another slot which runs all-year round: the mid-week matinee. Admittedly it has some minor draw-backs (I doubt Kinky Boots is as raucous on a Wednesday afternoon) but it’s usually worth it for the money saved.

Previews

Beat the masses by signing up to theatre’s mailing lists (Donmar Warehouse, Almeida, Royal Court to name but three) and getting advance notice of upcoming seasons. Most theatres offer cheaper seats for ‘previews’: the week of shows which runs before ‘opening night’ (when the critics are in). While these aren’t technically a finished product (the director is normally in the house making notes), they’re 95% there – at most, some scenes might get trimmed in time for press night. Despite that, a lot of novice theatre-goers are put off by the term ‘preview’ (which they confuse with ‘rehearsal’ – something which happens elsewhere).

Apps and lists

TodayTix (free to download) is essentially the digital version of those booths in Leicester Square, but with one important difference: the lucky draws. Most shows run one of these a day, with around ten users winning the right to purchase a pair of excellent tickets for £20 or so. The competitions are free to enter and you can try your luck over and again.

Even better, though, if you can get on one of the half-a-dozen or so secret ‘lists’ which offer free tickets to undersold shows. And don’t go thinking ‘undersold’ means rubbish shows: on a cold Monday night it can include most West End musicals and big name dramas. These lists are slightly hush-hush and usually only allow newbies to join if referred by an existing member, so it’s worth asking around if you know anyone who uses them. RB Tickets, run by Richard Bocock, is one of the best.

Memberships

Lots of theatres – the National, the Barbican, the Almeida – offer first dibs to their members. If you’re a regular, you can easily recoup the price of membership (£60 at the uber-trendy Almeida) by signing up and getting the cheaper seats. Just watch out for the ‘Cumberbatch effect’: when the Barbican announced that the A-lister would be playing Hamlet in 2015, their memberships apparently rose over 500%. Even then, though, the majority of the Sherlock obsessives were left disappointed as tickets sold out in seconds. Apparently memberships plummeted the next year (although not before the champagne corks popped in the Barbican’s fundraising office).

Befriend actors

Well, why not? They’re often nice people and can easily get you in for free. Even a show like All About Eve (the current West End hot ticket), which stars Gillian Anderson, will have a few recent graduates in the ensemble cast. If necessary, use your imagination: a friend-of-a-friend who featured in the Almeida’s sell-out production of American Psycho, supporting a well-toned Matt Smith, was apparently gifted a free weekend at an expensive health spa in return for two complimentary tickets. Given the blagger in question worked in the spa’s marketing team, the whole hustle didn’t cost her a penny…


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