Theatre is the new rock and roll. This year the West End is attracting a galaxy of extraordinary star names to the London stage, from Sex in the City’s Sarah Jessica Parker to Cara Delevingne and Tom Holland, yes Spider-Man himself. Look in one direction and Doctor Who star Matt Smith is doing Ibsen; look in another and Beverley Knight is about to light up the stage in Sister Act.
Want to watch the stars of Succession live? Well Sarah Snook will be doing a solo take on The Picture of Dorian Gray and Brian Cox is starring in Long Day’s Journey into Night (with Patricia Clarkson). Or how about national TV treasures Keeley Hawes and Sheridan Smith? They’re both coming to the West End too (in different shows).
Elsewhere, there’s a new play from Jez Butterworth, the writer of Jerusalem, which some describe as the best dramatic work of the 21st century, Ian McKellan giving us his Falstaff at last, and Fawlty Towers is making the leap from small screen to stage, adapted by none other than John Cleese.
But hang on, if theatre is the new rock and roll aren’t the prices also on a par with a Taylor Swift concert? We’re never far away from another furore about quite how dear a night at the theatre can be. The arrival of Plaza Suite at the Savoy Theatre in January, starring Parker and her husband Matthew Broderick, caused outrage over ticket prices that hit upwards of £350, seemingly cutting out any fans without a Coutts account.
Actor Andrew Scott weighed in last week on BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House, calling ticket prices “frustrating” and warning that it was “important that [theatre] doesn’t remain an elitist art form”, while Ralph Fiennes, over on BBC One’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, said prices were “worryingly high”.
While it’s worth pointing out that those eye-watering prices tend to be premium deals, often with booze and food thrown in (and producers also say those whopping prices subsidise cheap tickets), stalls seats across the West End are still no friend to the wallet. But it is possible to bag deals to the most in-demand shows, with a chance to watch the biggest stars without breaking the bank – as Scott also said, “you have to be prepared to rummage a little bit”. Here’s our how to guide…
The most basic advice is all about planning. Desperate to see a new show? Find out the day the tickets go on sale – the dates are well publicised online – and go in as soon as booking opens to access the most affordable tickets directly. For all the talk of Plaza Suite’s £350 tickets, one friend managed to land a seat at the show for £35, all with a bit of thinking ahead.
It is also worth being flexible about when you can go – there are cheaper tickets to be found early in the week and some matinees. Or consider going to a preview. Every show has some time in front of an audience before official opening to see how it lands. It may not be the finished article but it will be close and the tickets are cheaper.
Bring a friend (or nine)
Many shows offer discounts for group bookings, so just gather nine of your closest friends and see the prices tumble (though check individual theatre deals as the size of group needed for a discount varies – and often deals apply only to shows from Mondays to Thursdays). For stalls tickets at The Lion King, for example, groups of nine will pay £50 each for a ticket. Some theatres have group newsletters which will keep those with a lot of theatregoing pals updated on new offers.
The Standard can help you out. Some great deals can be found on our own site ES Tickets. Current offers include shows like Hello Dolly, starring Imelda Staunton, which opens later this year, as well as the Fawlty Towers play and Back to the Future, all for as little as £24. Have a browse and find the best deals on the big name shows.
Or head to Leicester Square
TKTS London is central London’s only not-for-profit ticket booth, and it has stood in Leicester Square for more than 40 years (with a brief break during Covid). Run by theSociety of London Theatre, it is open all week, with new on-the-day tickets released each day. If you don’t want to go the traditional route and head for the centre of town in person, it has a website with offers on it too, which it updates throughout the day.
Rush baby rush
Many West End venues release discounted tickets on the morning of a performance – perfect for anyone with a bit of flexibility. Day seats for some shows can be snagged by those turning up in person at the box office though it’s worth checking individual shows as not all offer in person tickets on the day.
And it’s not just about queuing up at a venue in the morning; in the digital age it’s possible to do it all on a smartphone. Ticketing company Todaytix has an app with a rush tickets section, providing last-minute deals on a first come, first served basis on big shows from Back to the Future the Musical and Tina the Musical to Guys and Dolls at the Bridge Theatre and The Hills of California. They also do 24 hour offers, so worth checking in daily.
Other shows have their own rush programmes. Wicked, for example, releases front row seats each week on Wednesday at 10am. Some run a ticket lottery, such as Matilda the Musical and Operation Mincemeat, where draws are made for the chance to buy £25 tickets. Stranger Things: The First Shadow also has a lottery, run by Todaytix, as does Hamilton.
For all the furore over its ticket prices at the top end, Plaza Suite has a weekly online lottery offering £40 tickets on the front row of the stalls. There’s no water, but there is some very funny physical comedy, so being that close up could be a hoot. Disney has magical Mondays: every Monday at noon it releases tickets for that week’s performances at just shy of £30 for The Lion King and Frozen. Much friendlier to the bank balance when looking to give the kids a treat.
London Theatre Week
London Theatre Week offers a great chance to bag a ticket at a really great price. It actually lasts a fortnight, and now takes place twice yearly, but that means even more chance to land a deal. It is currently running until March 3 – so head here to search for the latest deals, and returns around August. Many of the biggest West End shows get involved (though not all of them).
Become a member
A lot of theatres have membership schemes, which offer priority booking before the seats go on general sale. Venue owners ATG (which has 11 West End theatres including the Harold Pinter, currently showing Jez Butterworth’s The Hills of California) and Delfont Mackintosh (which has eight), cover many of the biggest shows in Theatreland. They offer membership, which means as well as priority access, there are sometimes discounted tickets, no booking fees, and free ticket exchange.
Subsidised theatres across London, from the National and the Old Vic to the Almeida and Shakespeare’s Globe also have their own membership schemes too, so if you have a favourite – join up.
Go (theatre) clubbing
Among the best kept secrets of London theatre are the organisations that quietly fill seats across the capital. And the reason for the lack of publicity? That’s the way these clubs like it. Punters can sign up to become seat fillers, receiving free or heavily discounted tickets, keeping producers and actors happy because there’s a full house, and venues happy because there’s more chance to sell overpriced glasses of wine, tubs of ice cream and merch.
But these clubs are adamant about discretion, as they don’t want recipients telling all those in the seats around them who have paid full price that, yes actually, they’ve got in with out spending a penny.
Companies such as My Box Office, Play by Play, The Audience Club and Stage Audience all operate these schemes, often for a small annual membership fee. Many sign up recruits on a referral basis from other members, but hopefuls can apply to join online and cross their fingers. Once in and up for a show you’ll have access to some of the biggest productions in London, but you have to turn up – you’re a seat filler after all – and, just to reiterate… discretion is the watchword.
Go over the river
The National Theatre has had one hell of a run over the past few years. The Stage newspaper just named it theatre of the year after a string of hits, and it’s a venue where ticket prices are generally cheaper than its commercial West End counterparts.
As well as hundreds of £20 tickets for each performance, every Friday, the NT releases its rush tickets. Between 12.30pm and 1pm each Friday a button appears on the theatre’s website with tickets for £10. Throughout the year, 16 to 25-year-olds can book at that same £10 price for any shows – currently including Nye, starring Michael Sheen, London Tide (an adaptation of Dickens’ Our Mutual Friends with music by PJ Harvey), and the brilliant Till the Stars Come Down. There are concessions for under 18s and over 60s too.
Go beyond the West End
Theatre in London is not just about the bright lights of the West End. There is a rich work to be found across the capital. Currently the Bush in west London is on a run of wonderful hits – one of which, Red Pitch, is transferring to the West End soon. Out east, Theatre Royal Stratford East is a great venue (soon to host the glorious Windrush musical The Big Life, based loosely on Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost) as is the Kiln in Kilburn, the current artistic director of which, Indhu Rubasingham, will take over the National Theatre next year.
As well as the big names of the Old Vic, the Almeida and the Royal Court, there is a wealth of smaller venues where you will find yourself consistently surprised by new stories and new voices from the Arcola in Dalston to Theatre503 in Battersea and the New Diorama near Regent’s Park, which nurtured the first productions of both Operation Mincemeat and Ryan Calais Cameron’s knockout show For Black Boys Who Consider Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy, soon to return to the West End.
Nearby too is Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, which has a great recent history of new musicals, among many other things, and operates during the summer months at very reasonable prices, with rain ponchos thrown in should you be in dire need. Dive in, there is much to discover.