Theatre Tips – How to Find Cheap Theatre Tickets and Access “Sold Out” Shows

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As a regular and enthusiastic theatregoer, I’m often asked by friends how I can afford it, to which I explain that, despite the rising prices for big West End shows (the latest attention focussed on the forthcoming musical of Elf, with its exorbitant prices), not all theatre in London is extortionate, especially if you know where to look.

I therefore thought it may be useful to share some tips, some obvious, some less so, as to how to secure tickets at a cheaper price. Most of these options require some effort, whether that’s getting up early to queue or setting a diary reminder to jump on a website the moment seats are released. However, if you can take the time and are keen enough to see something, then hopefully some of these suggestions will prove helpful.

1. Theatre specific schemes

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Many theatre have ticket schemes, which offer a cheaper level of seats for certain productions. It’s always worth checking their website in advance to become familiar with such schemes and when tickets are due to go on sale. Some of the best schemes are:

  • National Theatre Travelex scheme – the scheme is a fantastic aspect of the National Theatre, offering £15 tickets for certain productions throughout the year. What I love about this scheme is that the seats are fantastic, with the first four rows of the Olivier and Lyttelton available as an example. In order to secure these tickets, the best tip is to book quickly as once public booking opens for each new National season these seats go fast.
  • Royal Court £10 Mondays – all tickets for Mondays of every show go on sale on the day for £10, half online and half in person at the box office. Again, you need to be quick, so set yourself a reminder.
  • Southwark Playhouse Pay As You Go Scheme – For £50 paid in advance, you can buy a subscription to the Southwark Playhouse, giving you five tickets. There is no expiry, so you can use the five over as long or short a period as you choose (only two can be used at a time for one performance though). It’s a great scheme, so have a look at their website for details.
  • Donmar Barclays Front Row – This is one of the toughest, as tickets go very very quickly. Each Monday tickets go on sale for the following week’s performances at 10 a.m., offering the front row for only £10.
  • The Trafalgar Transformed seasons from Jamie Lloyd release all Mondays for each month on the 2nd day of each month for £10. If he returns for a third season, it’s almost certain this scheme will return as well.
  • The Park Theatre at Finsbury Park has a Pay What You Can Afford scheme on certain days (usually all matinees) to allow people to make a donation instead of paying the standard ticket price.
  • The Young Vic tends to offer a season saver, whereby if you buy three shows in the season at full price, you’ll get a discount. A brilliant deal if you intend to see most of the theatre’s season.
  • The Bush Theatre also offers a season saver – book 3 shows at top price in one go and only pay for two!

2. Day Seats

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Day seats are one of the most widely used and easiest ways to get cheaper tickets for bigger, more expensive shows, if you are prepared to put the effort in. This basically means getting up early and joining a queue! Day seat policies vary from theatre to theatre and even show to show at a theatre, but are always great value as they tend to offer good seats, sometimes front row even, for a cheaper price. Admittedly, the higher the stage, the more uncomfortable this front row could be, but if prices are inflated, it’s often the most accessible option. You can call up the box office of the theatre to check what it’s day seat policy is and how early the queue is starting. A current example of a popular day seat queue is the Barbican Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch (30 tickets at £10 each day). A great resource is the Theatremonkey website, which tries to give as much up to date day seat information as possible.

3. Age discounts

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Many theatres have reduced price tickets for certain age groups, which are great value while you qualify for them. Examples are:

  • Old Vic – under 25s can enjoy £12 tickets for all performances.
  • Almeida – under 30s can buy tickets for £19 on Mondays only.
  • National Theatre – Those 16 – 25 can buy £5 tickets through the Entry Pass scheme. You need to sign up to the scheme in advance.
  • RSC – Those 16 – 25 can buy £5 tickets through the RSC Key scheme.
  • Young Barbican – discounted tickets available for 16-25 year olds across all its events.
  • Tricycle Theatre – TRIKE scheme offers £10 theatre tickets for those under 26.
  • Young Vic – £10 tickets for under 25s.

Check a theatre’s website for details of their scheme and what you need to do to take advantage of it, as you may have to register first.

4. Resident discounts

Certain theatres offer discounts for residents within their community. The Bush (in Shepherd’s Bush) via the Bush Local scheme and the Lyric (in Hammersmith) are both examples of theatres which give some form of discount to locals. Enquire at your local theatre for information and availability.

5. Previews

A good proportion of theatres sell preview performances at cheaper prices, to take account of the fact that the show is still under development. Don’t let this put you off though, as it usually merely means tweaks rather than substantive changes, which can be interesting if you plan on seeing something again later in the run and can then see what the changes were.

6. NT Live / the RSC’s Live from Stratford-Upon-Avon filming nights

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These days more and more shows are being filmed for cinema screenings. Generally, these performances result in discounted prices for the audience in the theatre that evening, due to the possibility of a camera restricting your view at points. It also gives another perspective on a theatre production to watch it live as it is being filmed. I saw the recent National Theatre Man & Superman on NT:Live filming night, enjoying a £50 seat for £29. Of course, these recordings also offer the opportunity for many more people to watch a performance from their local cinema for the price of a cinema ticket. Details of NT:Live here and the RSC’s Live from Stratford-Upon-Avon here.

7. Seat filling websites

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Both The Audience Club and Play By Play UK are examples of companies which assist producers with filling seats, whether during early previews to get people talking or if a show is doing less well. The Audience Club membership starts with a £4 donation to Marie Curie and requires you to see 12 shows in the first year to qualify for the next level of membership (with access to larger shows). Play By Play costs £75 a year to join, which gives you access to their full range. Fees then payable on each ticket range from £2-£3. Crucially you must respect the discretion policy of both companies and if attending a show via either company, keep this to yourself within the venue and on social media both beforehand and afterwards. Both require you to email your interest in joining and you will then be contacted when room is available for new members.

8. Restricted view options

All theatres sell certain seats at cheaper rates due to their positioning causing a restricted view. The more you try, the more you get to know which are actually not that restricted at all, which in some cases results in a bargain. Examples being slim pillars in your view, which often don’t block too much and are fine if you go as a pair and can lean more to one side if you know the person next to you! Check sites like Theatremonkey for opinions of views from seats. Twitter is also great for seat tips, as well as the Theatre Forum (registration needed to access the forum).

9. TKTS booth / in person at box office

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The TKTS booth in Leicester Square is the official discount-selling booth, which offers some fantastic offers on discounted tickets for shows. This is especially useful if you are looking for tickets at the last minute. Another saving is to book at the box office in person if you can. This way you can avoid the booking fees added to online sales.

10. Digital Theatre

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Another recent development is the growth of filmed productions being made available online for purchase as rentals or purchases to keep forever. This is mainly thanks to the brilliant Digital Theatre, which currently offers some brilliant shows. These include the wonderful Private Lives starring Anna Chanellor and Toby Stephens, Much Ado About Nothing with David Tennant and Catherine Tate and The Crucible starring Richard Armitage. Prices are very reasonable (around £4 rental, £9 SD purchase and £11 HD purchase).

Sold out shows?

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The other big question I am often asked is how do you get tickets for a “sold out” show. The simplest ways are  either via Day Seats or Returns on the day.

Returns won’t be discounted, as you are offered whatever tickets have been returned to the box office, but if someone can’t attend a show or some of their party can’t, then hopefully they will return their tickets on arrival at the theatre. Anyone waiting in the returns queue will then be offered those tickets at face value. It’s never guaranteed, but I’ve never failed yet in a returns queue and that includes at small venues such as the Donmar. I’d recommend getting there around 3 hours before the show starts to join the queue, although for popular shows it may need to be much earlier than that.

I’d add to this, if you have tickets you can no longer use, offer them back to the box office for returns. Yes, your tickets are non-refundable, but if a show is sold out then the theatre is usually willing to accept them, on the understanding that there is no guarantee of your money back. Chances are a sold out show will have a day seat queue hoping for such tickets to be put up for resale. You lose nothing more by trying and it may mean someone else gets to fill the seat.

So if there’s something you really want to see, but think it’s too expensive or sold out, look in to some of these options and maybe you’ll be able to go after all!

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