|The Olivier Theatre from the back of the Circle for Peter Pan|
When I moved to London, I gave up all the acting. I simply didn't have time for either rehearsals or performances since I was working in retail with unsocial hours. I didn't go to the theatre at all for a very long time. I couldn't face it. I wanted to be on the stage rather than being in the audience and it just left me frustrated. Plus it was (is) expensive to go to shows in the West End and the salary of a retail manager (as I was at the time) simply didn't stretch to West End theatre tickets.
In the last few years though, I've started going to the theatre again and have gained much enjoyment and brain food from it and have been to all kinds of performances from the tiny to the huge, from mainstream to borderline bonkers and everything in between. I have a few thespian friends, mainly from my youth theatre days and some of them are in high enough places that I get the occasional complimentary ticket to see a show that they're in or are directing. I've also discovered several ways of enjoying the theatre in London without breaking the bank. Here's the lowdown.
1. Day Seats
This can be a great option for seeing shows in the West End. Many of the London theatres offer heavily discounted seats for the same day when their box office opens in the morning. Typically, they keep the front row available for day seaters, but sometimes they'll offer up other unsold seats as well. For the very popular shows, you'll need to get up early and queue. For others, you can rock up just before the theatre opens and you'll be rewarded with your tickets. Sometimes, if you're passing a theatre, it's worth popping in to see if they have a day seat available for that night. You can get lucky like that from time to time - I managed to get a ticket for 1984 for £10 just 40 minutes before curtain up. And if you're on your own, it's even easier as there are often the odd single seats available which are harder to fill as most people attend with a companion.
Before you head off to grab your day seats, it's well worth reading what TheatreMonkey has to say about it. There you can find all the London theatres listed and what their current policy is about day seats, including availability and pricing. It's a fantastic resource and well worth doing your homework so you can work out what show to try for. Check it out here.
2. TodayTix App
This is an app and website where you can access the equivalent of day seats but in a digital format. For some shows, there's a daily lottery that you can enter to win a day seat at a fixed price, for others, there are 'rush seats' available for that day or the next at a substantial discount, and for others, discounted seats are listed for the current week. Just this week, they've announced that you can now book up to 30 days ahead so you can do some forward planning rather than needing to be spontaneous.
The app is free to download on both Android and iOS or you can access on http://todaytix.com/. When you sign up, please use my code SMZER and you will get £10 off your first booking and I'll get a referral bonus too. Since many of the tickets are £20 or less, that means a very cheap ticket indeed for your first ticket. I like the app. I think the usability is good and it's not too cluttered. In fact, I'm off to see Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour tonight with a TodayTix Rush ticket. The booking process was about as simple as it could get.
3. The Leicester Square Box Office aka tkts.co.uk
This is a London institution and I can remember going here when I was in my teens and twenties to get tickets for shows with both my Mum and my Aunty Betty. Back then, you'd rock up at the booth and hope for the best as to what's available. Now you can check online what's available before you join the queue to buy your tickets. Tickets are available for the same day and the earlier you get there, the better tickets you'll be able to score. And it saves you having to queue up at the crack of dawn for day seats and if one show is sold out, they have others on offer so you can always go to something. The staff there are very helpful and will tell you about the different shows on offer to help you choose.
4. Theatre Clubs
I am a paid up member of four different theatre clubs where they offer a mixture of heavily discounted tickets and/or complimentary tickets (for an admin fee) for a wide-range of shows from fringe and pub theatre to the ENO and big West End shows. There's an annual or monthly fee to pay and there are club rules to follow (typically, don't talk about the club or your complimentary tickets whilst at the theatre) otherwise your membership can be terminated. The service they offer is called 'papering'. This is theatrical slang for giving away free tickets to fill up the house. This is often done during preview weeks to build up the word of mouth for a show, or to make up for a lack of marketing or lower ticket sales than expected. And if you're in the theatre, then the chances are you'll support it by buying a drink and a programme. Every little helps when it comes to keeping theatre alive.
If you like to plan ahead, then What's On Stage Theatre Club might suit you. You can pay monthly or annually. Typically there are discounted seats for selected performances booked and paid for in advance. Occasionally, they do papering or offer heavily discounted seats for big shows at the last minute.
ShowFilmFirst is free to join and intermittently, you'll get an email through to film screenings, theatre shows, sports events or concerts. There's a nominal charge if you book one of these performances but there's no fee to join the email list. What I would say is that you need to keep a close eye on your emails as these tickets tend to go very quickly.
The other two clubs I'm a member of are much more discreet and because of the papering aspect and their rules around discretion, I'm not going to link to them. An online search for 'theatre club London discounted tickets' should render results.
5. National Theatre Friday Rush tickets
I've seen many good shows at The National Theatre and one of the best ways of scoring a ticket is to check their website on a Friday. Every Friday at 1pm they have a tranche of tickets on sale for £20 for shows the following week. Sometimes, you can even get sold out shows this way as they keep an allocation for this. For some shows, you can get lucky later in the week too if the Friday specials don't all sell out. Here's the Friday Rush landing page.
There are three venues at The National and they all have great sight lines so it's very unlikely you'll be blocked or have a limited view unless you're right at the sides. In The Dorfman, it's small enough that any seat should give you a good view although the raking isn't as good as the other two spaces there.
6. Clubs run by the theatres themselves
Several London theatres have their own members clubs or season ticket options. Ambassador Theatres run a lot of the large regional theatres and a number of West End theatres. If you're a member you can get booking discounts and other benefits. If I lived outside of London but near a regional theatre, I would probably make use of this. Southwark Theatre has its own season ticket offering and Jermyn Street Theatre offers benefits, advanced booking and discounts to sponsors.
7. Earn theatre tokens with your reviews with Seatplan.
Seatplan is an online service whereby people review theatre seats in terms of view, legroom and comfort. If you're looking for bargain seats and wondering if the view is going to be terrible, this is a great place to check that out beforehand. Some reviewers even manage to sneak in some photographs (photography is usually prohibited, even before curtain up). For each verified review (either a photograph of the stage from your seat or a copy of your ticket, you earn theatre tokens. These tokens can then be used at most West End theatre box offices in person, at the Leicester Square Ticket Booth and many regional theatres too. It's free to join. You can also book tickets through this site too.
8. Get Into London Theatre
Every year, the Society of London Theatres has a special deal for families for discounted tickets for popular shows in their 'Get Into London Theatre' promotion. They do sell out quite quickly, but you can add yourself to the mailing list. The people behind this are the same people who run the Leicester Square Ticket Booth.
9. Other options
MoneySavingExpert and Time Out are worth a look. As is Lastminute.com and Groupon. Again, you need to monitor your emails and you need to cross reference the deal to see if you can get a better price somewhere else.
If you have any other tips, do let me know. And happy theatre-going!