Theatre Review – The Bodyguard starring Beverley Knight (Dominion Theatre)

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After missing this musical the first time around, I was pleased to have another chance. I admit, I was sceptical about a musical adaptation of the classic 1992 film, but with such a talented singer as Beverley Knight returning to the role, I was prepared to give it a try on its return to London this summer.

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The fiery opener of The Bodyguard!

The show broadly follows the story of the film. International singer and actress Rachel Marron (Knight) is at the height of her fame when her manager insists they employ a bodyguard due to threats she has received (the extent to which even she isn’t fully aware). That bodyguard is Frank Farmer (Ben Richards). Marron does not want him invading her life and he grows frustrated by her attitude. However, over time a respect and attraction starts to grow between them.

As a musical, the story of The Bodyguard works well and in order to ensure plenty of musical numbers, the songs made famous in the film (including Run To You, I Will Always Love You, Queen of the Night) are also supplemented by others from Whitney Houston’s back catalogue of classics, meaning the evening becomes a true celebration of the late singer’s work, with classics such as One Moment In Time and I Wanna Dance With Somebody right through to the last single she released before her tragic death, Million Dollar Bill.

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Beverley Knight (Rachel Marron) & Ben Richards (Frank Farmer)

Story-wise, I was pleased with the choices made overall. The differences to the film on the whole make sense. I won’t spoil them all, but unsurprisingly we don’t have the scene with a boat exploding on the lake in the wood on stage! There is also some streamlining in terms of the villain (with only one here, rather than the film’s twist of the initial crazed fan, not being the one trying to kill Marron), which makes things less complicated for the musical.

The set and staging works well, with some fantastic pyrotechnics for Marron’s concert opening (which interestingly is where they choose to use my favourite song from the film, Queen of the Night), effective, yet simple sets for other locations, such as the Marron house and various dressing rooms. The log cabin set from later on is also very good indeed. Projections are used throughout the show, mainly to show the audience what the stalker is doing at his desk and it is these projections which were the weak link for me, as they tended to come off as a bit cheesy, rather than chilling. They also really do not need the projected montage sequence at the end, which effectively replays moments from the show on the screen, as if some form of music video. I see that that’s what they were going for here, but it just didn’t work for me and was far too cringe worthy!

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Beverley Knight (Rachel Marron) & Rachel John (Nicki Marron)

That slight criticism aside, the biggest assets of the show are the acting and singing talent of the leads. First and foremost Beverley Knight is excellent in a role which is synonymous with Whitney Houston. She is able to play the role of Marron convincingly and crucially has the voice to match. It takes someone with a lot of talent to come on to a stage and give those songs as much as Houston did and Knight succeeds every time. Ben Richards is also very good as Frank Farmer, conveying both his harder edge and softer, more caring side through scenes with her son Fletcher and as the two grow closer. He is also able to bring some humour to the character, particularly in the scene in which Farmer and Marron go on a date (which here is set in a bar on karaoke night, rather than in the restaurant setting of the film), which became one of the show’s highlights for me and was very well received by the audience. Huge praise must also be given to Rachel John, who plays Marron’s sister Nicki. She too has an incredible voice and her duet with Knight is another crowd pleaser.

So, overall I thoroughly enjoyed my night at the Dominion Theatre (my first ever visit there too). I’d been unsure whether the show would ruin my memories of the film, or if I’d find it impossible to look past the original movie and see the story in another medium, but I needn’t have worried. The story works just as well on stage and with such superb vocals from its lead actress, you can’t help but be engaged by it. It’s certainly worth a visit whether you’re a lover of the film, a Whitney fan or someone coming to it fresh and by the final encore you’ll be on your feet dancing and singing along with the rest of the audience!

The Bodyguard continues its run at the Dominion Theatre and is currently booking until 7th January 2017. Running Time: 2 hours 25 mins (including an interval). For more information and availability, (note Beverley Knight does not perform at all performances), visit the website here: http://www.thebodyguardmusical.com/home.php

Theatre Review – No Man’s Land starring Ian McKellen & Patrick Stewart

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I had been anticipating the arrival in the UK of this production of Harold Pinter’s 1974 play ever since its 2013 Broadway run and thanks to the wonderful decision to tour the production around the UK, I was able to see it at the Lyceum in Sheffield, in advance of its arrival in London next month.

I didn’t know anything about the play before the show and I think it’s fair to say that having now seen it, I’m still not entirely sure what it was about! Thankfully though that seems to be the common reaction from anyone watching No Man’s Land, especially for the first time.

The play takes place in the Hampstead home of Hirst (played Patrick Stewart), who after meeting him in a pub, has invited another man, Spooner (played by Ian McKellen) back to his home for another drink (or three!). As the evening draws on and moves in to the following morning, we watch as the complex dynamic between the two of them unfolds, particularly when they are joined by two younger men (played by Owen Teale and Damien Moloney), who supposedly work for Hirst, although even this doesn’t ever feel certain!

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No Man’s Land is a very strange play. There is no clear path as to where the story is going and you are never really sure whether what you are seeing is even reality. Have Hirst and Spooner only just met that night, or have they been literary rivals for years? Is one man weak compared to the other and if so which one? Over the two halves of the play we see each of Stewart and McKellen take on the role as the more dominant, more confident man, which adds to the complex nature of Pinter’s work. Just when you think you at least understand the personalities of the men, Pinter wrong foots you and has you yet again questioning exactly what is unfolding in front of you. It’s possible that the whole play could just be happening in Hirst’s mind, as he nears the end of his life, in the no man’s land between this world and the next.

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Ian McKellen & Patrick Stewart 

 

Due to all of these uncertainties, No Man’s Land is not an easy play  to watch, simply for the fact that it challenges its audience; it makes you think, assess, question and ultimately remain unsure as to exactly what you have seen! It therefore won’t appeal to everyone, but although it frustrated me and wasn’t as funny as I’d hoped, I enjoyed the fact that it left me wanting to read more about the play and what others think about it.

The biggest attraction here is of course Stewart and McKellen, two of our finest actors and they are, as usual, wonderful to watch together on stage. I’ve been lucky to see them both on stage before, both separately and together in Waiting For Godot and it is always a thrill, even when the material is a little surreal! This play provides each of them with the opportunity to portray almost two different men, with McKellen the more dominant and in control in the first half, before the tables turn in the second, transforming Stewart’s Hirst, from a frail man to one very much the master of his home and all those in it. Crucially too, the play provides the opportunity for both humour and moments that are much more disturbing in tone and together with Owen Teale and Damien Molony (both of whom are very good in their supporting roles), all four actors do a wonderful job of bringing these complex men to life.

So, did I enjoy No Man’s Land? Yes and no. It wasn’t what I’d been expecting and although I was frustrated by the surreal nature of the play, I thoroughly enjoyed watching such superb actors spark off each other and I’m sure fans of both of them will revel in the opportunity to see them live on stage. If you’re prepared to spend a night at the theatre that will pose more questions than it answers then it’s worth a visit, especially when its tour is providing the opportunity for audiences outside of London to see it too.

No Man’s Land continues its tour at the following venues: Brighton Theatre Royal (22-27 August); Cardiff New Theatre (29 August – 3 September); Whyndham’s Theatre, London (8 September – 17 December). For more details, visit the website here: http://www.nomanslandtheplay.com

Theatre Review -Groundhog Day (Old Vic) is another triumph for Tim Minchin!

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Before posting a review of this latest new British musical, it seemed appropriate for me to take a second look, almost four weeks after I saw a very early preview. I admit when Tim Minchin first confirmed he was working with director (and now artistic director of the Old Vic) Matthew Warchus, on a musical of Groundhog Day I was sceptical. Could it really work? I hadn’t been a fan of the film on original release, so wasn’t sure if it would even appeal to me. However, knowing how talented Mr Minchin is and after falling for Matilda (his first stage musical success) upon first seeing it in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 2010, I had all my fingers crossed for this show.

Thankfully, I can categorically say that Groundhog Day has only grown stronger over its preview period and is one of the brightest stars in London theatreland at the moment.

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Andy Karl & Carlyss Peer

 

For those unfamiliar with the 1993 film, it centres on Phil Connors, a grouchy, arrogant and rather rude (albeit in an amusing way for us) weatherman, who is grudgingly dispatched to the small American town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for its day in the country’s spotlight – Groundhog Day! Every 2nd February, all eyes turn to this small community to see the weather prediction of Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog, who supposedly predicts when spring will arrive. Connors has no time for such silliness and cannot wait to return to civilisation. However, he soon realises he has a terrible problem – the next morning he wakes up on Groundhog Day again and the next day and the next. The question is whether Phil will ever understand what he needs to do in order to break this surreal loop!

It was a bizarre film, but it really does work as a musical. Danny Rubin, who wrote the film, is ideally placed to retell the story in a new medium and combining his script with Minchin’s quick, intelligent, witty lyrics and perfectly pitched emotional music, results in an absolute triumph and possibly my favourite show of 2016.

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Building a musical which is based upon repetition of scenes could have resulted in something that felt a bit dull, but the production sparkles from start to end. Once the premise has been established the whole day isn’t repeated. Instead the quick cuts to repeats of certain moments create some wonderfully funny scenes. One in which Phil takes his producer Rita to dinner to try and get her in to bed is just one example, as we see Phil trying to refine the night over a number of occasions with disasterous results!

With such a strong foundation through Rubin, Minchin and Warchus’s direction, the show needed a strong lead actor to bring its central character to life and thanks to this show, I have discovered the brilliance of Andy Karl! He is superb as Phil Connors, bringing every facet of the character to life. He is certainly a character who develops so much over the story and Andy Karl is more than up to the task of conveying everything from his arrogance and somewhat unlikeable behaviour, through to his kinder side, as, whether he can see it or not, Phil starts to care about the town he is trapped in. As an audience you can’t help laughing at some of his antics and find yourself warming to him as the story moves along. I admit I also envied his ability to say anything he felt like, no matter how rude!

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Danny Rubin (Book) & Tim Minchin (Music & Lyrics)

 

The whole ensemble work so hard to bring vibrancy and life to even the smallest of characters, but special mention must go to Carlyss Peer as Rita, the young woman who helps Connors become a better man, along with Andrew Langtree (who as Phil’s old high school classmate delivers one of the most moving songs of the production in the second half) and Georgina Hagen, as Nancy, the young, blonde woman, longing to be seen for more than her looks. She opens the second half with “Nancy”, another of the show’s more heartfelt songs. Crucially for me, most of the catchy songs from this musical have stayed with me over the last few weeks and a cast recording cannot come soon enough!

Credit also must be given to Rob Howell’s fantastically inventive set, full of colour and able to transform the stage quickly from one location to the next. I also loved the comical use of miniature houses and vehicles, particularly in a car chase and also when the news van is caught in the snowstorm. It’s so silly, but so much fun!

Groundhog Day is a wonderful addition to London theatreland and although it’s soon destined for Broadway, I can’t help hoping that perhaps we’ll get to keep it here just a little longer. People deserve the chance the see it and with a current closing date of 17th September that really isn’t very long at all. So, my advice to you is book your tickets quickly, before this production sells out (which is almost certainly guaranteed following its strong reviews). The cast and creative team have managed to bring to life a show which makes you laugh (a lot!), smile and even shed a tear. You leave the Old Vic with a smile on your face, having seen something quite magical. I’d be quite happy if it was Groundhog Day every day! I’m already looking forward to experiencing all again….and again…..!

GroundHog Day continues its run at the Old Vic Theatre until 17th September 2016. Running Time is 2 hours 35 minutes approx. (including a 20 minute interval). For more information and ticket availability visit the theatre’s website: http://www.oldvictheatre.com/whats-on/2016/groundhog-day/

Book Review – Keep You Close by Lucie Whitehouse

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My local bookshop, West End Lane Books in North West London, is wonderful at arranging events with some of the finest writers around and a couple of weeks ago we were treated to readings and discussion with two such authors. One of these was Lucie Whitehouse, who talked about her latest book Keep You Close and having just finished it, I can guarantee you are in for a thrilling read from the first page to the last.

Rowan Winter grew up in Oxford. Her mother died when she was young and her father travelled all the time, meaning she kept to herself – until she met Marianne Glass and soon, not only were the girls close friends, but Rowan became almost part of the Glass family. Ten years later, Marianne has been found dead, an apparent fall from her flat and although they hadn’t spoken in a decade, Rowan suspects there is more to Marianne’s death. She knows Marianne had severe vertigo and never went near the edge of the roof, so how could she fall?

Keep You Close is a brilliantly written book, in terms of plot, character and construction, as Lucie Whitehouse skilfully weaves the past and the present together, while always suggesting that there are still secrets the reader has yet to uncover. I find so many books, although great reads, give their endings away too obviously and it is wonderful that this novel doesn’t do that. There were moments that really did make me stop and go “Oh, now I see! How clever!” which is all down to Lucie Whitehouse’s cleverness in constructing her story.

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Author Lucie Whitehouse

A key to any novel is its characters and one of the strengths of Whitehouse’s novel for me was the fact I genuinely liked Rowan. She was flawed from the outset, but I couldn’t help but like her because she was so believable. As the book moved forward, I was desperate for her to discover the truth so that I would know too! Marianne was also a very real presence in the story despite her death at its start and I very much enjoyed the way her life, both when she knew Rowan and just before her death were weaved in to the story in order to build the mystery and anticipation.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Keep You Close. With interesting characters, an intriguing mystery and a pace that builds the further through you go, it’s the perfect psychological thriller, which keeps some surprises up its sleeve until the end!

If you’re already a fan of Lucie Whitehouse or, like me, hadn’t read one of her novels before, but love a great thriller, then this won’t disappoint. I’ll certainly be reading more of her work and recommending this book to friends and family.

Keep You Close by Lucie Whitehouse is published by Bloomsbury and available from all the usual book stockists.

 

 

Theatre Review – Become immersed in Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More (New York)

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During my recent trip to NYC, there was one other theatre experience that had been a must for a long time and that was another Punchdrunk adventure!

After enjoying, but being slightly overwhelmed by The Drowned Man, I was excited to experience Sleep No More in New York, which has already been running for over five years. A collaboration between Punchdrunk and Emursive, Sleep No More brings its audience the same unique, immersive experience that those already familiar with Punchdrunk have come to love. It’s taken me some time to write this review, as it’s essential not to give much away!

For the uninitiated, Punchdrunk shows centre around a story which is brought to life around a multi-levelled building by an ensemble of actors, through movement, dance and minimal dialogue in what is called promenade theatre. Once inside the story, the audience members are each given a mask, which must be worn at all times and there is absolutely no talking. You are also encouraged to split up from those you arrive with. This may sound daunting, but it’s absolutely the best way to experience a Punchdrunk show. It is after all a journey; during three hours inside, you wander around and decide what to observe, which actors to perhaps follow and which rooms to explore. Everyone should choose for themselves. Your time within the world created will be greatly improved by doing so.

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My souvenirs from Sleep No More

So as for Sleep No More itself? It’s hard to review in the sense that the magic of the experience is to know very little at the outset and so I am limited in what I can say! You arrive at The Mckittrick Hotel (a converted warehouse building) and on “checking in” at the door, make your way through to the bar.

The show has been devised around Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s better known and bloody stories. However, this is no ordinary Macbeth and indeed it isn’t even the only story that unfolds within the five storey building. My choices over my time at the McKittrick meant I in fact saw very little from the Macbeth side, unlike my friend who saw most of the recognisable moments from that story brought to life!

Being inside such an experience is hard to describe. It’s at times as if you are in someone else’s dream, due to the lack of set course you take, while at the same time being incredibly liberating to simply wander wherever you choose. To reach each new floor involves climbing the stairwells and as you are effectively on your feet for three hours, wear sensible, comfortable shoes! It can also get quite warm inside, so wear layers or light, cool clothing.

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Close observation of the actors by the audience at Sleep No More

I enjoyed Sleep No More much more than The Drowned Man and the key reason for that was my attitude. I was braver in my exploration of the building. I ventured in to dark rooms alone, walked closer to actors and wasn’t afraid to catch their eyes. They are after all reacting to the audience as much as to each other. My open attitude must have been clear, as I did get to experience one of the famous “one on one experiences” in which one actor took me aside, away from the other followers and in to the dark crevice between the walls. It was a unique, surreal and very intimate moment that I won’t forget and drew me further in to the mysterious atmosphere of the show.

More than anything else, the creation of the world will astonish you. The attention to detail in these shows is superb. Each floor is a different environment; you may find yourself both in indoor and outdoor locations, all perfectly brought to life. Every prop is there by design – whether the titles of books you can take off a shelf, the half written letters you can read on tables or the posters and notices on shop pinboards. One tip I will say is, if you find yourself outside the sweet shop – go in, open the jars and sample the goods! The sound/music underscoring the locations is also perfect and the large ensemble of actors work incredibly hard to bring the world to life inches from you.

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The experience begins on arrival at The McKittrick Hotel

The masks and silence also add an air of gothic creepiness to the night. They are unquestionably unnerving and having everyone wear one is so effective. They also make you bolder in my view. There are no places out of bounds here. If you want to sit on the arm of the chair of an actor as they sit there reading something, then you can. The anonymity of the masks allows you a freedom that is like no other theatrical experience and on returning to the outside world at the end of your time, it’ll have you comparing notes with friends and theatregoers as to what you each saw and did for a long time afterwards.

I’d also agree that Sleep No More, like any Punchdrunk show, is something that will inevitably benefit from repeat trips. The more time you spend there, the more you’ll see and the more the pieces of the story will start to come together. Sadly, I only had time for one visit this time, but, if it’s still there on my next trip to NYC, I’ll almost certainly go back. Once you’ve caught the Punchdrunk bug it’s inevitable!

So, if you’re going to, or are in, New York and are looking for a totally unique evening, book a ticket. If you go with others, do split up inside. It’ll mean you have so much more to share afterwards. Finally, be bold. The more you put in to Sleep No More, the more you’ll enjoy it!

Sleep No More continues at The McKittrick Hotel at 530 West 27th Street and is currently booking until 30th December 2016. Tickets are $86.50 (plus booking fee) and try to get the earliest timed slot to maximise your time inside. For more information visit the website here

Theatre Review – Yerma (Young Vic) starring Billie Piper

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Simon Stone’s modern adaptation of Yerma, Frederico Garcia Lorca’s 1934 play, is one of those nights at the theatre I’ll never forget. Productions such as this latest offering from the Young Vic (a venue that continues to excite with its programming), are exactly why I love the live theatre experience. Simply put, you don’t just watch this production, you feel its intensity and it stays with you long after you’ve left.

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Brendan Cowell & Billie Piper. Photo: Johan Persson

The story revolves around its central character, played by Billie Piper, in what is undoubtedly her finest stage performance to date. Set in today’s London (complete with references to Sadiq Khan, Brexit and Boris), her life is falling in to place perfectly. Together with her boyfriend John, she has just bought a house and they both have successful careers, and so she turns to the next, logical path in their life together – having a child. It’s apparently not something he thought she wanted, but at 33, in a world where women are constantly reminded about their ticking biological clocks, she is starting to think differently about the future. Over the course of the play, we witness how what begins as a seemingly casual idea becomes the all-consuming focus of her life and how that affects not just her, but everyone around her.

It’s a timeless story, which will no doubt resonate with its audience and in this 21st century interpretation, Piper could so easily be any young, professional, modern woman in her early 30s, which is highlighted by her lack of a name (the programme simply referring to the role of “Her”). With so much opportunity and choice on offer to us today, it’s incredibly harrowing to watch as something out of her (and indeed all of our) control, can so devastate someone’s world.

With no interval, time passes quickly, sometimes by hours, sometimes by years, signposted by the two small screens above the stage, on to which chapters, complete with short descriptions, appear. Initially, this style felt a little jarring, but you soon adjust to its rhythm and as time moves forward and each scene faded to black, I found I was bracing myself for what I might see next before me. As is the case when watching some of the Greek classics, you sense tragedy is inevitable.

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Billie Piper is utterly incredible. Photo: Johan Persson

I admit that I hadn’t heard of the play before and having now seen it, I understand why it is described as one of the greatest female roles in drama. Indeed, I’m surprised it hasn’t been performed more and following in the footsteps of recent strong female roles including Medea at the National Theatre and Electra at the Old Vic, it’s a role that results in an astonishing performance from Ms. Piper, which together with recent stage successes in The Effect and Great Britain, mark her out as a truly talented actress. Her character is so very human and painfully believable that you could forget this isn’t real life unfolding before you, as she experiences the gauntlet of human emotion from love and happiness, to anxiety, fear, despair, jealousy, anger and indeed deep sadness and grief. It’s an emotional rollercoaster that doesn’t pause to catch its breath.

Lizzie Clachan’s set also adds to this intensity, as the audience sits on either side of a long, rectangular, perspex box. We observe the lives of the characters, seemingly trapped within its confines. It’s as if they are under the microscope and as Piper begins to unravel, the closed off nature of the stage setting enhances our sense of her isolation.

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John MacMillan as Victor. Photo: Johan Persson.

Although, Piper is the focus of Yerma, she is not the only one giving a strong performance in this production. Maureen Beattie is very good as her emotionally distant mother, who although she clearly loves her two daughters, is not very good at demonstrating it openly. John MacMillan brings a gentleness to her former boyfriend Victor, whose reappearance in her life a decade later brings with him the painful reminder of the child she chose not to keep when she didn’t think it was the right time.

However it’s Brendan Cowell’s moving portrayal of her partner John that stands out. He may seem rather unsupportive early on, focusing on his job more than his relationship, but as the play progresses you find yourself growing more and more sorry for him, as he watches the person he loves changing while he can do nothing to stop it. His chemistry with Piper is intense throughout, whether in the lighter, passionate early days, or in the darker, painful years that follow and their raw emotion is incredible, if not difficult to watch.

Simon Stone has done a fantastic job of updating the source material from its rural, farmland setting in Spain, to 2016’s London, in which although women’s place in society is very different, the struggles many face to conceive remain unchanged. He has made some changes to the underlying story. One in particular is very interesting and, although I won’t spoil it for those familiar with the play  was, in my view, a logical change that made perfect sense given Piper’s character’s emotional state. I also loved that some of the dialogue felt as though it was improvised by the actors in the moment, which again added to the realism of the piece.

In short, Yerma is a superb production and will without a doubt be one of my theatre highlights of the year. It is immensely powerful and manages to capture moments of wit, humour and love, as well as anger, sadness and despair and within which Billie Piper commands the stage in a performance worthy of all the accolades it will surely receive. It may be a difficult subject, which is sometimes painful and indeed heartbreaking to watch, but theatre of this standard should not be missed. Book your tickets now while you still can.

Yerma continues its run at the Young Vic until 24th September 2016. Running time is approximately 1 hour 50 minutes with no interval. Prices range from £10 – £35. For more information and availability visit the website here.

Ticket Release Reminder – Harry Potter & The Cursed Child

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock over the past few months, you will be aware that the next chapter in the story of Harry Potter is currently delighting audiences in London’s West End (I’ll see what I think when I go in September).

However, if you weren’t able to nab yourself some of the 170,000 tickets that went on sale last time, then this post is a reminder that a further 250,0000 tickets are released tomorrow!

Here’s what you need to know before tomorrow morning! Good luck Muggles!

  • Tickets are being released for performances from 27 May-10 December 2017
  • Tickets go on sale via the official website at 11 a.m. (BST) tomorrow (4th August)
  • The website will be operating an online queuing system, which will open at 10 a.m. Just head to the website from 10 a.m. to be placed in the queue (at random, so if makes no difference if you join at 10:01 or 10:58 a.m.). You can of course still join the queue after 11 a.m.
  • At 11 a.m., tickets will go on sale and you’ll await your turn (watching the little wizard walk along the queue status bar if it’s like last time)!
  • Once you are in, if it’s like last time, there will be symbols showing the availability of each date. If you are flexible, I’d scroll down to those with the best availability, as you are then more likely to secure seats than fighting over earlier dates with fewer seats to go around.
  • No need to think about where to sit. Just decide on your price band in advance. To speed up the process, the system will automatically allocate you the best available for your chosen date.
  • Booking is limited to 6 per transaction (that’s 6 sets of tickets to see both parts 1 and 2).
  • If online is not an option for you, call +44 0330 333 4410.

In case it’s useful, here is a link to the theatre’s ticket infographic chart – Infographic Chart

There used to be price banding chart when deciding what seats you want to go for – it seems to have disappeared, so perhaps it’s changed a little, but in June it was roughly that the cheapest two bands were only available in the balcony, with the circle and stalls being the higher bands.

I hope that’s useful! Let me know how you get on!

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