Queuing for Returns: Some Tips

Photo by Val Vesa on Unsplash

Last night I was queuing for returns for last night of The Lehman Trilogy. The play started at 7pm and I arrived at The National just a little after 5pm and there were already 16 people in front of me, some after one ticket, some two, and one person three. One lady who was in the queue had never tried for returns before, and asked what was the likelihood of success. A very good question, to which there are a number of answers. But it got me to thinking that I should probably share my experiences as I have been doing this for years.

My friends know from my posts on social media that I often pitch up to try for returns, and jokingly comment when I am successful that the theatre gods have looked down kindly on me (I usually offer a libation in the form of a glass of wine – which I drink – by way of thanks to the theatre gods!)

At the risk of jinxing this run of good fortune I’ll share some of my tips.

1. Check the website

This does sound a little obvious but you’d be surprised how often you can find that tickets have become available. Usually the online booking engine you’re using as a regular punter is the same one as the box office uses, although with less bells and whistles (but not always). So when someone calls up to return a ticket, it often gets put back into the system and can then be snapped up in the usual way.

2. Ring ahead

As above, try calling the theatre box office in the morning and you might be in luck with those tickets returned overnight. And even if not, then you can speak to a real person and ask about what time they start a returns queue.

3. Day seats

Many theatres offer a limited number of day seats. They tend to be limited in terms of the number you can buy (typical rule of thumb is you can buy two). They also usually can only be purchased in person from the box office. They also usually go on sale when the box office opens.  This often is 10 or 10.30 but check as theatre open hours vary. I went for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child returns and pitched up at 11am and whilst I was successful, I was late by an hour.

4. Advance release of tickets

Increasingly theatres are now offering a Friday release for “additional” tickets for the following week. For example the National Theatre calls their’s Friday Rush tickets: offered at 1pm on the website only and for a maximum of two tickets. More details here

5. Ticket lotteries

A number of the more popular shows offer a sort of lottery of tickets.  Similar to the idea of the day seats, these are run slightly differently according to the theatre. The two I’m aware that run them are The Book of Mormon and Hamilton. Check their websites for details.

The English National Opera (which also does musicals and ballet not just opera in the English language!) does a “secret seat” scheme where you can book £30 seats for a performance, but they are unallocated until 72 hours before that show. This means you might be lucky enough to be in the stalls as they fill up the gaps. But again a lottery, but at least you’re guaranteed a seat.

6. Get there early

As a rule of thumb be there about two hours before the start of a performance. Now this will depend on the popularity of the play and how far towards the end of the run it is. Do ask the box office what they’d recommend. If a show is sold out and its getting returns queues then those at the box office will often see what time people are getting there. So ask them what time they’d recommend you get there to be at the front of the queue. Then whatever they say I then try and get there at least 30 minutes prior to that. The early bird and all that.

7. Go alone

As much I love going to the theatre with friends and sharing the experience, sometimes it is easier and simpler to go it alone. And when going for returns, getting a single ticket is often much easier than getting two tickets, especially if you want to sit together. Sometimes what is returned is one ticket because there is one person ill from a booking of two seats together. So being single can mean you can get really good seats.  Alternatively, if you don’t mind being separated from your companion, this also can ensure you both get in. You obviously can meet up in the interval (assuming there is one) and after the play.  You do need to be prepared for the possibility that only one of you gets a ticket though.

8. Go at less popular times

Avoid Friday and Saturday evenings. Whilst these are the busier nights and therefore the chances of people getting sick, having a work or family emergency that means they have tickets to return, this can clearly happen any night, so my un-scientifically tested theory is your odds are going to be better earlier in the week. A top tip is to go to the matinee. Now if you can make the weekday matinee then you’re almost a shoe-in to get a ticket. I’ve been known to take a half day to get to see something (I did this for Rory Kinnear’s play The Herd at the Bush Theatre some years ago, and had the added bonus of getting to meet him in person afterwards as he was giving the actors notes midway through the run). But Saturday matinees are also a good bet. Especially if you follow my rule of getting there early. I have done this so many times at the Donmar that I’m surprised they don’t know me as the matinee guy (I’m actually known as the Chapel Down guy, but that’s a whole other story!)

9. Be opportunistic

This will depend on personal circumstances (babysitters or how far out of town you live or how dependent on public transport) but if there is a train or tube strike, or if there has been bad weather (snow if a good one), then I’ll try the box office and see if they’re getting returns.  In this case if you know there is any one of the above happening or likely to happen then I usually call the box office, or walk in in person during the day, before the appointed returns queue hour.

10. Know what you want

Tickets obvs, but are you looking for good seats in the stalls? Or happy to have a seat in the back row of the gods? Or even standing tickets? Again this partly depends on your budget or desire to see the show, but that moment the nice man or woman from the box office says they have a ticket, you need to know if you want to take it or pass it on to your fellow returns queuer. Now often the tickets are offered up as they are returned, but just because you’re offered an expensive ticket in the stalls doesn’t mean whilst you’re there you can’t ask if they have anything cheaper.  I’ve known times when I’ve got to the front of the queue and more than a few differently priced tickets were available. I’ve also taken the risk of turning down tickets to wait for what I wanted (for Home, I’m Darling I actually wanted Stalls tickets and for a while they only had restricted view tickets, only getting what I wanted minutes before curtain up).

11. Hold your nerve

Sometimes the box office wont get returns until the very last couple of minutes. Remember that in general the theatre always wants a full auditorium, so they’ll often hold curtain up for a few minutes to get those last paying customers in. I’ve lost count of the number of times I only got my ticket in the last five minutes before the start of the play.

12. Come prepared

If you’re being organised and getting there a few hours early, then I come with a book or paper to read (or headphones although this can be a bit antisocial – see next tip) and snacks or food (especially if I’m going for a matinee, coming with a sandwich is a good idea).

13. Get to know others in the queue with you

There is something rather social about the camaraderie of queuing for returns. Now this doesn’t mean that being friendly will guarantee you’ll get a ticket. Although sometimes it helps for others to know for example you only want one ticket, so that if a person ahead of you is after a pair of tickets and they are only offered one, they might think to offer it to you and take their chances on a pair coming up. But mainly the reason is you’ll often find those queuing love theatre too and sharing tips about shows they’ve seen that you maybe even don’t know about. Obviously you don’t know whether your tastes or standards are going to be similar, but if you’re both interested in getting returns for the same show, the chances are good.  And if you’ve got theatre recommendations, its always good karma to share!

14. Be prepared for people to be touting their own returns

It’s happening less and less as theatres now typically tend to take returns and manage the re-sale themselves through the box office, but there can be times when the box office will send individuals out to the returns queue and sell the tickets themselves for cash. If you think this might be the case for the show you want tickets for, then go the cash point beforehand and take out as much cash as you’d want to offer.  This happened to only twice in the last couple of years – for Brannagh’s The Winter’s Tale and for the last night of Miss Saigon. But I had ready cash, and even haggled a bit!

15. The box office staff are your friends

Going to the box office beforehand, even a few days before, means you can get the inside track on a show, how the tickets are selling, which days are popular, and even an idea about the ticket pricing.  Even without this information I generally find turning up in person, being nice and polite, can reap its own rewards. Often there are company seats held back for the director or lead actors for their friends and family, and these can be the ones that get released before the performance.  Sometimes the box office will know that a number will be released later anyway and if you’re there early, keen to see the show and seem like a thoroughly lovely person, then you may well find you get a good deal there and then, well ahead of the need to get there before a returns queue starts.

16. Try the Half Price Ticket Booth in Leicester Square

So I do love these guys. Ever since I came to London I’ve used them as my go-to for tickets if I wasn’t going to the individual theatres. Now these are the ones actually on the edge of the square itself, and not any of the other booths on the adjoining streets. I’ll be honest I’ve never checked out whether these other ones are in anyway affiliated or not, but I’ve always trusted the solid box of a building on the square. Yes it gets used by tourists a lot. Typically though they are getting their tickets for Mousetrap, Les Mis or Phantom. And these are rarely discounted. But if you are open to what you want to see but perhaps want a good seat and a good price, these guys can save you on the shoe leather traipsing between the theatre. Yes they take a commission but its not excessive. You can also check out their website ahead of time (on the day or even while you’re in the long snaking queue) to see what shows have got the best discount. Again knowing what you might want to see, or at least knowing what the show is will avoid you ending up spending in something you wished you hadn’t. Sometimes a show just isn’t selling well.  Sometimes it’s been subject to bad reviews.  Just a note of warning, there is a time cut off – I think its about 30-45 minutes before curtain up – which sort of makes sense. They’re being given access to all the tickets from all the theatres, and there needs to be a cut off. However if you hit this, there is still the possibility if you’re quick and you can get to the theatre’s own box office in time you might get that single they never got to sell.

The Half Price Ticket Booth website is here

17. Be prepared to be disappointed

It’s a lottery. Actually probably better odds. But still there are no guarantees that you will get a ticket and get in. So go prepared, go knowing what you want, but like any gambler, know when to fold.  There’s always another day (unless it’s the end of the run – and even then if it was good enough it might get a transfer, or a revival).

18. National Theatre Live

And then there is always the possibility that what you want to see will be screened via National Theatre Live to your local cinema.  And sometimes these are recorded live but screened in the cinemas later.  So you might have lucked out seeing it in the flesh, but can still get the next best experience (and sometimes better as you’re not stuck behind a pillar or that extremely tall bloke sitting in the seat in front of you).  For upcoming screenings go here.

So there you have it. My years of experience of trying for returns. My secrets are out in the open now. Oh well. I might see you in the returns queue ahead of me!

And just to end my story from last night, yes I was successful in getting a ticket for last night of The Lehman Trilogy. As were others who came after me in the queue too. It was a lucky night for us all. Now if this was one of the plays you wanted to see and missed it (and it was very very good – a 20/20 from me) then it is one of the ones that is transferring to the West End (Piccadilly Theatre). Tickets on sale in November for a run starting on 11 May (after a stint at New York’s Park Avenue Armory).

December Picks

December Picks
Photo credits include Merry Wives by Manuel Harlan © RSC; White Teeth by Mark Douet

So for this current month I’ve got the following plays booked up:

Uncle Vanya @ Hampstead Theatre – so I’m a plus one for a friend’s booking, but I never turn down a chance to see a classic.

Merry Wives of Windsor @ Barbican Theatre – the initial reason for booking this was because I’m having a light-hearted competition to have seen all Shakespeare’s plays before another friend, and this one is on my “not seen” list, however this RSC transfer to the Barbican looks like a thoroughly engaging production.

The Convert @ The Young Vic – a powerful new play looking at religion and colonialism set in 1896 in what is now Zimbabwe.

Sweat @ Donmar Warehouse – a UK premiere of a play based on research in 2011 by playwright Lynn Nottage into the lives of the people in one of the poorest cities in the US.  It looks like it might shine a light into some of the root causes behind the Trump’s popularity.

And I’m still yet to get around to book the following

Nine Night @ Trafalgar Studios – because I missed it when it was at the National Theatre.

Pinter 5 & 6 @ The Pinter Theatre – because I’ve now managed to see Pinter 1-3 and the cast includes Jane Horrocks, Rupert Graves, Celia Imrie and John Simm.

White Teeth @ Kiln Theatre – what sounds like a clever adaptation of Zadie Smith’s

And a couple that have been running for a while, that might just get a Christmas outing:

42nd Street @ Theatre Royal – just because some toe-tapping show tunes scream Christmas and now Bonnie Langford is staring

Tina @ Aldywch Theatre – for the music and Adrienne Warren performance



Christian Marclay: The Clock

Tate Modern. On until 20 Jan 2019

Video art installations, especially ones created that run as a long loop in a darkened room, either take a leap of faith, a knowledge and love of the artist’s work, or a creative concept that captures the imagination and entrances the public.

The Clock falls into the last category and the concept, whilst deceptively simple, must have been a curating and editing headache. Find film clips from throughout the history of film which visually or aurally reference a specific time – often shots of analogue or digital clocks literally showing the seconds and minutes ticking away – and edit over 12,000 clips together such that you have a 24 hour film where the time shown on screen is the real time as you watch.

The result is a bewitching work which lured you into the dark, seated on a three seater sofa, in a room in Tate Modern’s new-ish extension.

It then becomes one of the hardest games of spot-the-film-clip and or actor. And a lot of fun. And even if you’re not a film buff, you get comfortable and settle in for as long as you want.

It is totally worth any length of queue you find when you arrive. It is a free exhibit after all. So be patient and you will be rewarded. No food or drink allowed (apparently) although the temptation to smuggling in popcorn now feels quite overwhelming.

And as this piece rolls on 24 hours you can come in and relax and watch for a period, leave and return and get a completely different sequence of film clips.

And for superfans the Tate are running a few 24 hour screenings over two remaining weekends on 3 November and 1 December.

I went on a wet Sunday afternoon and absolutely loved it and heartily recommend it.

(Visited on 14/10)


The Wild Duck

Almeida The Wild Duck
Photo: Lyndsey Marshal, Kevin Harvey and Edward Hogg by Nadav Kander

Almeida Theatre. On until 1 December 2018.

The stage is bare, the brickwork at the back of the stage showing, and props such as a record player, photographic developing equipment and a massive set of metal stairs, all pushed to the edges.  Electric strip lights drown the stage in glaring brightness. On walks an actor with a hand held microphone, and what appears to be a reminder to the audience to turn off their mobile phones, cleverly becomes a monologue about truth, lies and storytelling.  And we’re off. Into Ibsen’s twentieth play written, as we are told numerous times during the play, in 1884. But this isn’t a exactly a straight performance of play, as the unconventional opening suggests. Throughout it hand held microphones are passed baton-like between the actors, as like some kind of talking stick, once received they reveal a truth to the lies spoken by their characters: “he lied”, “it was more than three” “he didn’t come back that night”.

This might seem a bit too self-knowing or like a comic wink direct to camera breaking the fourth wall.  But here, in the hands of Robert Icke, it is a device that allows the characters almost to confess or come clean about what has been said. Nor is this some sort of academic textual analysis of the play, although it certainly does allow for some meta analysis of Ibsen, and his own illegitimate child born to a servant girl and who he paid maintenance to until she was thirteen.  Instead it makes the play richer, the pacing faster, the narrative more meaningful, which combined with the updating of the language and references, creates an even more powerful production.

After the opening speech to the audience by Gregory Wood (Kevin Harvey) you move into the opening act outside the Wood’s family home (microphone – “end scene”), then quickly into the apartment of his friend James Ekdal (Edward Hogg). Here you remain to become immersed in the Ekdal family, their struggles, their love, their happiness. And whilst we learn that this is built upon the shakiest of foundations (this is Ibsen after all!) you really felt, despite all the trials they had been through as a family, that there was genuine warmth and love here.

Wild Duck is not a play I knew before, so the story and emotional journey of the characters were all fresh to me.  It doesn’t always follow that a classic play is gripping, but here I was on the edge of my seat.  I thought the acting from the whole cast was simply outstanding.  I believed in every character. I felt the emotion and turmoil and pain of them all.  Nicholas Farrell who plays the grandfather was wonderful in his playful tender scenes with his granddaughter (Grace Doherty on the night I saw this).  Edward Hogg and Lyndsey Marshall as Gina Ekdaly felt entirely believable as husband and wife, from their most tender moments to their pain as the world comes crashing down around them.  But even minor characters like Andrea Hall as Anna or Rich Warden as the drunk doctor neighbour, felt like real fully rounded characters. In part this was due to the writing in this adaptation, but it was also due to great performances given by the whole cast. There was a palpable chemistry on stage.

Bunny Christie’s set design should also get a mention.  Despite the apparent sparseness at the start, the set builds incrementally through props and subtle lighting changes, reaching what can only be described as the set designers equivalent of a crescendo, which I feel should not be revealed at the risk of spoiling the impact on the audience.

In short this play and this production was for me pure theatre magic. I was entranced from the moment it started to the very end. Robert Icke is a true master. I left happy and elated, despite the bleakness and dark themes the play explores. This is what great theatre looks like.

October 19 (Stalls B6)


A Very Very Very Dark Matter


Bridge Theatre. On until 6 January 2019

On paper or in person the pitch would have been irresistible: the prolific playwright (and writer of screenplays In Bruges and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri) Martin McDonagh has a gothic story involving Hans Christian Andersen, pygamies, Dickens, avenging ghosts and a haunted accordion.  Add some nineteenth century empire building critique of King Leopold II’s murderous exploitation of the Belgian Congo for political bite, and you’ve got a hit. No? No!

We open to a darkened house filled with creepy dolls and mannequins and other objects and instruments hanging from, shelved or scatted in a gabled room.  Actually as there is no curtain at the Bridge Theatre, as we enter to take our seats, we see the dark set, trying to make it out as we chat and finish our drinks before lights up.  Suspended to the right of the set is a large box which is swinging ominously and slowly from side to side.  A voice from out of the darkness begins to narrate, and we learn we are in Denmark around the late 1830s in the home of the famous and hugely popular writer of fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen (played by Jim Broadbent).  As the swinging box turns, it reveals a glass side, a small round hole, and someone, a woman, writing frantically as if her life depends upon it.  And we learn it possibly does.  Each sheaf of paper filled with prose, gets posted through a gap at the bottom of the glass and flutters down onto the wooden floor. This is Hans Christian Andersen’s muse. No not muse. His enslaved writer of his fairytales.

This does all sound like a wonderful conceit for a story and a play. This is not a play suitable for children by the way.  Not because it would give them nightmares (it might, although I don’t think even they could suspend their disbelief enough to be frightened), nor because of the frankly unnecessary profanity (I don’t mind a good unhealthy amount of swearing), but once you get the point that our fraudulent author is a potty-mouth unsuitable to be in the company of children, the joke is done. No, it’s not suitable for children, nor for adults, because it is a meandering self-indulgent mess.

There are some very funny lines. There are some standout scenes – scratch that – there is one standout scene with Dickens, played by Phil Daniels, and his family in London, which was hilarious.  And there are some good performances, including a theatrical debut from Johnette Eula’Mae Ackles as the writer of the tales in the box. I do think Jim Broadbent struggles though to be both comic and sinister at the same time.

But overall the story becomes preposterous and the jokes puerile and lame.  I don’t mind flights of fancy, or being lead down dark and twisting paths. In fact I love them. And I have enjoyed works by Martin McDonagh before, not least The Hangman.  Ultimately though it is the writing here which is flawed. And no amount of good acting can save the play.

Saturday 13 October (Gallery 1, T59) – note this was during previews


Pinter at the Pinter

Pinter at the Pinter

Harold Pinter Theatre

The first two collections of Pinter’s one act plays will be coming to an end next Saturday 20 October, but there are five more to come, taking the season through into mid February 2019.

Overall it is the scale and ingenuity of putting on a whole season of Pinter’s short one act plays which is most exciting and impressive.  The cast list reads like something of a who’s who of acting. Some names will undoubtedly create buzz and sell tickets, although given the nature of Pinter’s characters it feels like there are going to be many opportunities to see some meaty performances from the whole cast. So whether you want to see Martin Freeman, Celia Imrie, Danny Dyer or Tamsin Greig, or a chance to see some rarely performed (or in the case of The Pres and an Officer, never performed) works by Pinter, there is probably something for everyone.

That said Pinter can be dark. Very dark. Pinter One opens with a barnstorming speech from a politician standing at a podium, complete with patriotic music and red, white and blue confetti cascading down into the stalls. (Amusingly this play opened during conference season). The speech quickly becomes menacing, and you fall very fast into a succession of plays that create a nightmare totalitarian state of violence, suppression and intimidation. What is ingenious about the structure of Pinter One is that whilst there is a feeling of a narrative arc, they were in fact written at completely different times, from the 1980s into the 2000s. To start this Pinter season with such dark and menacing stories clearly chimes with our age, and is a bold statement of intent for the whole season.

Pinter Two comprises of two plays looking at relationships and infidelity: The Lover and The Collection – themes Pinter returns to in perhaps my favourite play of his, Betrayal. Both the plays here were written in the early 1960s, and yet seem fresh and modern, with sharp observations on how couples do or don’t succeed in living and loving.  And whilst Pinter Two is decidedly lighter and a less depressing look at our society than Pinter One, we have now new lenses with which to view these works: #metoo and #timesup make us reflect and question these works afresh.

Perhaps then it is only natural that when we find the laughs, we laugh harder and more raucously.  Jon Culshaw plays an idiot president, dressed of course in a blonde wig, orange makeup and red tie, who accidentally nukes London. David Suchet hilariously camps it up in a silk dressing gown and withering looks worthy of Kenneth Williams at a beefy underwear clad Russell Tovey.  Pinter gives us comedy – usually black comedy or satire – through an insightful observation of the follies of human nature and how we interact with one another.

Whether all of these shorts will stand up to our current time or not is almost not the point. Like the recent successful TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has demonstrated, we need writers, artists and directors to constantly be questioning and challenging the world around us, showing us how fragile our freedoms are, or making us see how ridiculous we can be to one another. It isn’t always comfortable for us sitting in the audience in the dark, but I for one will there for as many of them as I can.

Pinter One Tuesday 25th September (Stalls Q15); Pinter Two – Saturday 13th October (Stalls P13)


And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens

Photo: George Fletcher as Karl and Luke Mullins as Candy by Henri T Art

King’s Head Theatre

This short two scene play by Tennessee Williams, was written between 1957 and 1962. This was a few years after Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and when he was writing other classics such as Suddenly Last Summer. Set in New Orleans in the home of “Candy” Delaney, who attempts to seduce and keep a straight sailor she has picked up in a bar.

With a transvestite as the central character and a gay young couple of tenants living upstairs, it is unsurprising that this wasn’t performed in Tennessee Williams lifetime.  That fact that it was only published as a play in 2005 accounts for why it’s not often performed even now. We have though in Candy and her brutish sailor Karl recognisable figures from other Williams’ play, most notably Blanche DuBois and Stanley from A Streetcar Named Desire.  And themes of desire, loss, and deception that often run through Williams plays like the hot sticky nights of the Deep South.

This production at the King’s Head Theatre was sadly only on for a short run as part of the current Queer Season. The central role of Candy, played beautifully by Luke Mullins, was both tender and powerful.  Tennessee Williams has written a great part: the fast talking, street-smart and well-off Candy has lost her husband to “another woman” and thinks she has found love in her handsome sailor Karl (George Fletcher).  We not only see a seamless transition as Candy turns herself from a man into a woman, but Candy narrates how her manners and voice become more feminine.  Whilst her sailor is in equal measure appalled and aroused, we the audience are captivated.  She appears strong, and in control and able to get what she wants, but like all Williams’ women, she is also tragic. It is a fabulous performance.

George Fletcher as Karl has a difficult part in so short a play, even separated in time over the two scenes.  We need to be convinced that he is all man, and yet lured back by a man to his home. He then needs to be moved by Candy’s story and then won-over by her, whilst holding back, keeping a revulsion in him that Candy is really a man.  All these conflicting emotions are subtly portrayed, so we do believe the consequences when they come. Ryan Kopel deserves a mention too as one of the young gay neighbours, whose angelic voice opens the play with a song that sets the emotional tenor of the play.

The staging of this production was hampered by the layout of the stage and seating (presumably set up for this Queer Season as I’ve seen other configurations), as depending where you were seated you either couldn’t see the faces of the actors, or you were blinded by the lighting.  Neither are great for the audience, but you accept the former in a theatre-in-the-round production, but not the latter.

Overall though it is a touching story, with sharp language and terrific central performances that cut through.  This is a play, short though it is, that touches on universal themes, and queer hopes and fears too. And for that I was delighted I got to see it performed, and I only hope it gets more outings.

Reviewed Friday 17 August (seat A22)