So a number of friends have asked me to share what I’m booking and what tickets I’m looking to get my hands on.
So in November and December I don’t plan too far ahead to allow for work / client Christmas parties but here is what I’m going to:
The Greater Game @ Waterloo Theatre – this I’m going to with my theatre wife (I’ll explain later) as her plus one. This is my First World War One themed play for November, based around the true story of the Clapton Orient football team who all joined up together to fight in the war. On until 25 November.
Hadestown @ National Theatre – this musical which mixes modern American folk music and New Orleans jazz to become an off-Broadway smash. Musical + classical myth of Orpheus’ decent to the underworld = my sweet spot. On until 26 January
Company @ Gielgud Theatre – this has been a hot ticket for a while, and I do love Sondheim! Booking until 30 March 2019
Forgotten @ Arcola – I was fascinated by this lost story about how 140,00 Chinese came to support Britain and the Allies behind the front lines during World War One. In the run up to the 100 years since Armistice Day, it felt important to keep learning about the history of this time. On until 17 November
I’m also looking at booking :
Honour @ Park Theatre – this was recommended to me and looks to be a gripping play about marriage that is compared to Pinter’s Betrayal and Hare’s Skylight – and that’s sold me. On until 24 November.
King Lear @ Duke of York – yes I know, it’s been on my list for ages to see Sir Ian McKellen in this lauded production and I’m hoping to grab a single ticket for myself before it ends this Saturday 3 November.
OthelloMacbeth @ Lyric Hammersmith – I like the audacity of bringing both plays together, described as “two iconic plays, seven deaths, fourteen characters, one unique evening”. I’ve got to move fast as it also finishes this Saturday 3 November, so this maybe one I miss.
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.
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).
By way of an end of summer report I thought perhaps I’d comment on the productions I’ve seen so far this year that have reached the high water mark of 20. Going forward it isn’t my intention to retrospectively discuss plays and musicals I’ve seen that have now closed, unless they are likely to transfer. Here though I want to give some indication of what I’m prepared to give these marks to, and why.
So before I start praising, I will add just that there is no mathematical formula being applied to my scores. I am not for example dividing up a production into scores for acting, staging, creative interpretations or story.It is instead more of a gut feeling (which I appreciate is subject to many and various pressures). As I leave a show, was I enraptured? On the edge of my seat? Wanting to leap into the aisles and dance? Was I challenged or stimulated (intellectually)? Or did I not feel it? Did I come away feeling like something was missing or off or out of kilter? Was I bored or distracted? Was I inwardly rolling my eyes and tutting?
Now given that writing reviews is not something I’m trained or particularly experienced in doing, other than verbal enthusiastic recommendations to friends, I beg some leniency. I will though try and be as balanced and even handed as I can.I will state the night I saw the show and where I was siting (as I’m of the belief that sitting in the front of the stalls vs back of the upper circle can influence your experience of a show). Although forgive me for this post I wont add these details. And I’m more than happy to have alternative views shared.
One final caveat is simply this: I never read or studied English or plays beyond GCSE, so any understanding or interpretation is coming from my background of enjoying the theatre, and possibly having seen different productions of a play.
So in the order I saw them this year:
Hamilton – So it probably goes without saying that receives top marks. An all round impressive production from music to performances and staging, of which much has been written already. I’ll only add simply that this is one show that lives up to the hype. And if you’re worrying you can’t get a ticket until 2019, then you can always try their ticket lottery: https://hamiltonmusical.com/lottery/
Network – A tour de force that cleverly brought the 1976 film to life. Brian Cranston was incredible in his performance of news anchorman Howard Beale, with an equally talented supporting cast. For me it was staging and live camera feeds projected up onto screens behind that was particularly clever (too often such efforts seem out of place) given the story being told. That, combined with this being a story about truth and how the news (and the public) is manipulated, made it a perfect play.
The Brothers Size – Almost at the other end of the production budget scale came at the Young Vic. A beautiful moving story simply told, in a chalk circle drawn by one of the actors at the start of the play. Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney (writer of the film Moonlight) this play demonstrated how talented he is.
Summer and Smoke – Another big hitter by Tennessee Williams at The Almeida. Happily and deservedly it is getting a transfer to the Duke of York’s in November, and well worth going. Whilst a fan of Tennessee Williams, I did not know this play. For me this was an incredible and magical production. The simple staging powerfully creating the atmospheric setting, with a wonderful performance from Patsy Ferran as a minister’s daughter.
The Inheritance Part 1 & 2 – Hard on the heels of the revival of Angels in America at the National last year, this was inevitably going to draw comparisons with its themes of gay men and the impact of AIDS on their lives. Whilst I think it had some flaws in the story, that perhaps could benefit from looking at afresh, it was an overwhelmingly powerful and moving theatrical experience that once I started crying there was little to stop me until we reached the end. As a gay man it resonated.
The Encounter – Complicité – Probably the most inventive storytelling seen so far. This one man show (Simon McBurney) using sound / foley tricks to recreate a fascinating true story of a encounter of a remote Amazonian tribe by National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre in 1969
My Name is Lucy Barton – Laura Linney gave an outstanding performance in the play of Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout’s best-selling short novel. The design team – including lighting and sound, should also win praise, in this minimalist staging. Perfection.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Coming out of this production at the Donmar I was just bouncing up and down by how great I thought it was, from the adaptation to the performances to the staging. Sublime!
A 24-Decade History of Pop 1776-1806 – This wonderfully outrageous show by Taylor Mac defies categorisation with its use of a 22-piece orchestra, drag, audience participation (at the Barbican no less), historical storytelling and musical history and deconstruction. I have never seen anything quite like it and cannot wait for the next instalment (1806-1836)!
XENOS – I’m sneaking in this dance piece by Akram Khan at Sadlers Wells (out of order of my timeline) because I do think this man is a choreographic genius, but also as it was also a tour de force of storytelling and staging, shining a light on Indian soldiers fighting for the British during WW1. His last solo show will not be forgotten (and I cannot wait to see what his company does next).
So there we have it 10 of my 20/20 productions taking us up to 6 months into 2018. I am genuinely excited and intrigued to see whether the remainder of the year can reach such zeniths of perfection.
* Photo credits: Matthew Murphy (Hamilton); Jan Versweyveld (Network); Tristram Kenton (Brothers Size); Marc Brenner (Summer and Smoke); Simon Annand (The Inheritance); Jenny Anderson/Getty Images (The Encounter); Manuel Harlan (Lucy Barton & Miss Jean Brodie); Sarah Walker (Taylor Mac)