Just the ticket: the dizzying world of theatre discounts

Since moving to London last December I have got to grips with Oyster cards, am au fait with engineering works and know where to buy the best cup of tea.* But one aspect of life in the capital still confounds and frustrates: theatre ticketing.

Of course, actually getting a ticket couldn’t be simpler – there are countless websites, ticket booths and touts – not to mention the theatre box offices themselves. But for those of us without a considerable disposable income – for those of us who have had to stoop to the level of Sainsbury’s basic curry sauce (9p a jar) – turning up and asking for whatever’s available is not an option.

And yet, for anyone who knows their Coward from their Chekov, living in London is like being in a giant sweet shop: where all the brightly-coloured goodies are tightly sealed in seemingly impenetrable glass jars.

And so we enter the dimly lit, badly sign-posted world of cheap theatre tickets. (As a guideline: I aim to spend no more than £10 per ticket.)

Widening accessibility to the theatre is not a top priority for this government. And given the mammoth task they’ve set themselves of decreasing the deficit by slashing public spending, one can understand, if not support their view.

But sitting in the audience for Laura Wade’s “Posh” at the Royal Court, I was struck by the uniformity of the audience – in fact, many of them would not have looked out of place in the play itself.

Theatre is a powerful means of communicating, stimulating debate, arguing a point or simply of stirring the emotions, but its voice is muffled and its effect muted if the audience is drawn from a narrow section of society. Cheap tickets not only broaden audiences but they also serve to give theatre back its voice.

Since the government announced the “curtailment” of the A Night Less Ordinary scheme, back in June (which offered free theatre tickets to the under 26s), things have become more challenging for the intrepid ticket hunter. But then this scheme always seemed too good to be true and indeed neither the theatres nor the theatregoers seemed to be entirely sure how the thing worked. So, although I mourn its passing, I rarely used it and am not surprised it is winding down (it will close completely in March 2011).

So where to from here? The good news is that ANLO was only one of several ways of getting into the ticket sweetie jar. The bad news: even Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent suave incarnation of Sherlock Holmes – complete with iPhone – would have difficulty keeping track of the options.

Charlie's dream come true: £5, non restricted view

  • The National Theatre is one of the best for cheap tickets. Their version of the ANLO scheme is called Entry Pass and once registered 15-25 year olds can get £5 tickets for all shows. The downside: it took them about a month to process my application.
  • More reliable are their day tickets (£10) – released each morning at 9.30am (but people in anoraks start queuing much earlier…). And standing tickets (£5) are usually still available at lunchtime – although the obvious drawback is having to stand, unless you manage to spot a spare seat. (This is technically NOT ALLOWED, but I won’t tell.) The NT’s Travelex tickets for £10 are a nice idea and beloved by their own publicity department but they’re snapped up quickly for most shows.
  • The Globe sells all groundling tickets for £5. Three cheers for simplicity and generosity!
  • Student discounts can get you so far but are sometimes only a matter of a couple of pounds. And many commercial theatres only decide on the day whether to offer these discounts.
  • Almost all theatres, however, have seats they have to sell cheaply because they are “restricted view”. Those two sweet words have served me well in my quest for affordable tickets. Sometimes this is only a matter of a safety rail intruding on your view and in other cases, it means you’re lucky if you glimpse the actors.
  • The Royal Opera House has £7 restricted view tickets but over half of the stage is hidden. At the Almeida on the other hand, my view was more than passable and at the Noël Coward theatre, to watch Enron, I soon forgot about the rail in front of me.
  • My prize for the best offers, however, goes to my local Tricycle theatre, who not only offer student discounts (though only on a Wednesday) but also Pay What you Can performances and discounts for residents. For anyone who qualifies as a concession (student, disabled, unemployed, OAPs), you can go to the theatre first thing on Tuesday and Saturdays and pay – well – whatever you can afford for a ticket.
  • In my experience, any website offering CHEAP THEATRE TICKETS is not worth a second glance and the traditional techniques of booking either well in advance or last minute are not by any means water-tight. You just have to know what is out there and be quick off the mark.
  • The Holy Grail, of course, is to befriend someone ON THE INSIDE. People who work for the theatres and theatre companies may have access to cheap tickets and might be allowed to pass them on. I live in hope.
  • Unfortunately, almost none of the above applies to the West End – despite seeing a show almost every week I rarely make a foray into the commercial theatres because the prices are just too darn high.

It only remains for me to wish you luck on your explorations and keep spreading the word on those deals…

*(V&A tea rooms IMHO).

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  • Comments (4)
  1. Nice summary of the options. A few other tips:
    The Arcola also does PWYC nights, which I think are usually Tuesdays.

    There are a couple select seats in the upper balcony at the ROH which are £6, at least for the ballet. They claim to be restricted legroom but in fact they are fine, even for tall me, with no restricted view at all.

    Southwark Playhouse does what they call ‘airline style’ pricing – the more tickets they have available, the less expensive they are. If you buy early it’s usually only £8. They also have a really unique ‘Pay-as-you-go’ subscription plan where you basically pre-buy 5 tickets for £35 which you can use for any show, any time, with no expiration. Topping up the PAYG is even cheaper.

    If you’re willing/able to go up from £10 a little bit, there’s loads of deals for the big west-end stuff on Lastminute.com and occasionally elsewhere. And previews are often a little cheaper…and knowing people still works *grin* A couple of the theatres (the Donmar particularly) are really good about offering fat discounts to followers on twitter or to their email subscribers…

    • Richard
    • September 15th, 2010

    Have added this article to a list of similar deals that I’ve found, which can be seen here. Great post!


    • disquietmuse
    • September 15th, 2010

    Great post! In addition…the Arcola also do pay-what-you-can on Tuesdays, the Old Vic sell 100 tickets at £12 for under 25’s on each performance and the Barbican’s membership freeB offers free tickets for music, theatre, dance etc. It took me a long time to suss these out but once you know about it…

  2. We have a few West End shows for £13.50 and less, including The Prisoner Of Second Avenue, Blood Brothers, Design For Living, Dreamboats and Petticoats, Educating Rita, Sweet Charity, and 39 Steps (restricted view for the latter). Nothing below £10 at the moment though…

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