Queuing for Returns: Some Tips

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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).