Be first in the Know
Sorry, but knowing what is coming and when tickets will go on sale is the best way of guaranteeing your seat.
Shows which will always sell out even before they open generally include anything with a star name involved, either in the cast, writing or producing. These shows will be booked pretty solid for several weeks or months after opening night, and longer if reviews and public word of mouth are favourable.
Sign up with every venue box office online mailing list you can, and every ticket agency. Both will send out emails giving between 1 and 24 hours warning of new shows.
Reading the Baz Bamigboye showbiz column in the Daily Mail newspaper on a Friday (twitter from midnight, sometimes earlier that preceding Thursday Evening) will also keep you abreast of developments, giving details of what is likely to happen. Theatremonkey finds this better than watching TV interviews or other journalists reports - Baz tries very hard to be ahead of the pack. So hard, in fact, that a certain backlash sometimes means tickets are released before his column mentions.
Group sales companies also get details well in advance, and tickets sometimes go on sale to groups before the general public. Register with Ticketmaster groups www.ticketmaster.co.uk or Group Line www.groupline.com / 020 7436 5588 to get details mailed to you.
Theatres with membership subscription schemes always offer members advance booking ahead of the public. The Donmar and National Theatre in particular are worth joining for that, and outside the West End, so are the Almeida and Menier Chocolate Factory.
Website www.ticketyboom.com also claims to alert subscribers online, by email and twitter about "on sale" dates for 100 or so venues.
Be first in the line
Visit the theatre box office website / sign up to the email mailing list or call them after reading Baz's column. Get a date for tickets going on sale. If they cannot or will not say, watch for teaser advertisements. These will arrive online up to 24 hours or so ahead, and may also appear in the Press - notably the London Evening Standard on Fridays, The Sunday Times Culture section and the Friday Daily Mail. Details of booking opening dates are often in small print in the adverts - some even offer advance booking just for readers.
An old-fashioned method is Theatremonkey sending a letter to the box office a couple of weeks before this date requesting tickets. Mark the envelope clearly with the show title and ' Advance Box Office'. State a number of dates, specify evening or matinee, preferred seat location and maximum price you will be prepared to pay. Give a daytime and evening contact telephone number for queries, and enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope for return of tickets.
Theatremonkey notes that postal ticket requests are often processed early and this method often gets the best tickets. Check, though, that the box office is accepting postal bookings before trying this, however. Also be aware that most don't take cheques.
A very large advertisement in the Sunday Times Culture section used to signify the opening of major show telephone bookings, traditionally at 10am that day.
These days, it is pretty much all online. Find the official website for the show as soon as it is announced (Google the show title and "official website" usually works, but be careful to check it really is - if the site says at the bottom it is designed by a major advertising agency like AKA or Dewynters, it's a pretty good bet. You can also find out by phoning the theatre chain, too). Sign up to the mailing list, and you will usually get an email offering priority internet booking to the "select few" before tickets are sold by any other method. It may also happen that if you have been a customer of the producer in the past, you will also get an email anyway, with luck.
Another development is the producer "holding off sale" some prime seats for many performances when booking initially opens, then trickling them back on sale as it gets closer to opening night. Worth checking online / ringing regularly if you can't get decent seats initially, as in a week or three they might have something good...
Beat the 'Line Busy' tone
Theatre chains LW, Nimax, Nederlander and Ambassador all have centralised phonerooms. No matter which theatre in the chain you dial, your call is routed to one place. This central place has access to reservations systems at ALL theatres in the chain. If you get the line busy tone, ring the number of another chain member and ask sweetly for the clerk to take your booking. Few refuse.
If using the phone, call the hotline number at a bit before or a bit after, then try again at random intervals. Oddly, most people try again every five minutes. If you call, say, every seven and a quarter, your call will avoid the switchboard logjam and get answered first! Do remember to check the small print beside phone numbers, and only dial those without booking fees or low service charges!
An Online Tactic
A few days before booking opens, visit the website of the venue or ticket company selling tickets for what you want to see. Learn where the "book now" buttons are, as it saves time on the day... and register an account with them, if you don't already have one. Do that be choosing a seat for something you don't want to see, setting up your email, postal address and password details, then not actually buying the ticket. Make a note of your password and keep it safe, ready for the day.
The monkey successfully secures seats by using online booking system to the full. Say:
Booking opened at 9am.
At 8.45am, the monkey logged on to the official venue website.
It followed the instructions there to "Book Now" and found itself on the dedicated page "waiting room," with a countdown to booking opening. QUEUE-IT controls the system, quite often, and is pretty good, too.
At 9am, it was assigned a random place in the queue, and when it reached the front, it booked.
Here's the good bit: IT USED SEVERAL COMPUTERS - desktop, laptop, phone (dedicated app or just the phone version of websites can be quicker than those for other systems), tablet - AND MULTIPLE WINDOWS IN MANY DIFFERENT BROWSERS - Internet Explorer, Chrome and Firefox (having checked a few days before that all three worked well with the show's booking system. Sometimes they don't, if not, don't use that browser on that show, of course). For reference, Ticketmaster likes only one window per browser to be open, so multiple browsers, but NOT multiple windows for them.***
Each tab initially showed "booking will open at 9am." Come 9am, each tab AUTOMATICALLY showed "in a queue, waiting time 1 minute" or 30 seconds or a random place number assigned. So it didn't have to "refresh" anything, just wait and watch each tab count down.
If the system crashes, you get another chance in another window, which helps.
Do put the first ticket you can into the basket in one tab, so it was "in" somewhere, but if you want to, you can wait for another chance to show in another tab, choose a better seat there, and discard the one in the basket at the same time in this new tab.
One point. If grabbing a ticket MAKE SURE IT IS IN THE BASKET, NOT JUST "clicked on" - the page will change to show an actual basket page.
DO rehearse the day or two before so you know how the particular system works, and if you can pre-enter your credit card, that helps speed things up and stops mistakes with excited fingers.
Remember too: if the system is busy or keeps "crashing," it at least means that nobody else can book either - so you should still have a fair chance...
***Some shows send out an email with an exclusive link to the booking site. First, if you are getting the link from a theatre's membership scheme, it may be possible to log in anyway via the website's "member's area" just using your password and not waiting for the link to arrive by email. If it's 10am and the email hasn't come, by 10.02am it's worth a try.
Second, if the email does arrive and you click to find yourself in a queue but not logged in, just held in that line, there's a secondary tactic for the computer literate to open multiple windows and get in line: in Outlook (and probably others) right click on the email and select "view source" from the box that opens. That will give you the HTML programming code that makes up the email. Compare the original email with the code, and you can figure out where in the HTML the actual link to the booking page is. It will begin "https://" just like a website address does. Cut and paste it into any browser and you can open as many as you like, provided you don't have to log into the theatre's website first. If you aren't familiar with this sort of thing, probably worth practising on an old email first, so you know what you are doing when the real one comes on the day and not wasting valuable minutes fiddling about.
Third, some theatres say booking will open at a set time... clicking on the link before can sometimes result in being able to book before everyone else as someone let it go live a bit earlier...
By the by, at many theatre box offices, should you call in person, you can often (but NOT ALWAYS) also make reservations for any other show hosted by the chain at the same time as buying your tickets for the current resident production. This saves tourist time and feet and is a little known facility. But very useful. Just do not do it in the hour before the show starts, or those waiting to collect tickets may lynch you.
Mailing lists / Membership Schemes
The pretty much sure-fire best method of jumping the line. Prior to Nicole Kidman's London debut, thousands joined the Donmar list for advance booking privilege. They were probably about the only ones to get in. No waiting for adverts, the news is delivered in good time to your door. Just remember to act on the same day you get the details - mailing lists are huge and full of avid theatregoers all competing with you. Hesitation is fatal, as National Theatre list members will attest. Companies with lists offering priority booking include the Bridge, Royal Shakespeare, Royal Court, Royal National, Donmar, Delfont Mackintosh and Ambassador Group theatres.
If you don't fancy subscribing, but do want to jump the queue and don't mind paying a little more for the privilege, it is worth looking out for Ticket Agency pre-sales. These happen in the time between "membership sales" opening and "public booking" opening. A specific agency gets an allocation (not usually all the tickets available, and not usually the best, if the monkey is honest) and sells them at the agency's normal price. That is usually the ticket price plus up to 25% booking fee. Booking is usually easier than the main crush, as fewer people are willing to pay the extra booking fee. On the other hand, if you are not paying the annual membership fee, the extra fee may be worth it to secure tickets ahead of the crowd.
In 2019, however, a reader told the monkey of a distressing experience. Using a well-known, genuine ticket agency, they booked seats while the "feeding frenzy" was going on at the theatre's main site - thus skipping the queue. Worth the extra the agency was charging. Sadly, a few days later, the agency emailed to say that her booking hadn't gone through - nor had others booking that way. A breakdown in communication between the agency's computer system and that of the box office meant that the agency hadn't been selling tickets in "real time" and those booking with the theatre's own system had been sold the tickets instead. There was nothing much they could do either, and the lesson is that even confirmed bookings can get cancelled, particularly if they are made with a third party ticket agency, even a genuine STAR one, as in this case.
Hey, Mr Producer!
Many shows in West End theatres are developed by theatre companies like the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company or touring companies with homes outside London. In addition to the West End theatre's box office, these companies may well keep an allocation of tickets themselves, selling them via their own website, with a far lower booking fee. Worth knowing, feels the monkey.
Visitors to London, Theatremonkey knows, often cannot book the months ahead that the above methods require. So to get in on short notice…
Ask for the least
Single seats are easier to come by than pairs. Often the box office or agencies will have an odd ticket that doesn't show up online - insist to the clerk that they check the computer properly when phoning the theatre instead. Sadly too many, especially in phonerooms at busy times, will believe the hype and will not. But be polite. If your party is prepared to split up you have a chance. This advice should possibly be ignored by those on a first date though.
Reader Ali agrees on this point,
"Just a note on getting tickets – I was on my own, buying only one ticket (obviously!) I was offered several good options for seats... I have in the past bought 3 single tickets for my family, sometimes scattered all through the theatre, in order to get to see a show – after all, you are watching the show, not chatting, and you can always meet up in the interval. You get a better choice if you buy singles, as they fit you in the gaps, so the seats may be very, very good. It wouldn’t necessarily work if you have young children though."
If just getting to see a show is the important thing, do not be picky about date, time, price or seat location. Even theatremonkey has accepted bad or expensive seats on occasion just to 'be there' for an event. Accept the good seats (except house seats as below) are gone, and be grateful to get in at all.
Some theatres - notably the Delfont Mackintosh chain, may allow you to "trade up" to better seats if you spot any at least 24 hours before the show. You have to pay the difference in price, but it means you can take advantage of extra good tickets being released.
Small point to remember: once you are sure that the clerk has made the effort to look for tickets on your chosen date, accept their word that there are none. Box office staff like selling all available tickets, and will do so if they can. Most are not magicians, though, and cannot produce tickets which really and genuinely don't exist!
Be an earlybird
Most people assume that a good review automatically means the show is sold out the second the word "hits the street". Not true. In London the public tend to buy seats around three weeks ahead for all but the most anticipated shows. In the case of an unexpected new smash hit show review, the first few days after opening will often be less busy than you expect, so tickets will often be available!
Try the Returns and / or "Day Seats" line
Even sold out shows have tickets left on the day of performance. These usually consist of tickets given back to the box office by customers unable to use them, or agencies unable to sell their stock. A few even come from Police and Consumer Protection officers who have confiscated tout's stock. Also, the theatre usually hasn't sold the type of seats mentioned above. Best of all are added a few prime seats called 'house tickets' normally kept back for VIP / managers use but not required that day.
Some theatres, notably the Royal National, the Royal Shakespeare Company (wherever they are currently playing), Royal Court and Lyceum also keep back a few seats deliberately for sale on the day of performance as a public service and anti tout measure. Increasingly, this trend is being followed by the most popular musicals and plays at other venues, with the front row of the stalls being held for sale on the day - often more cheaply (though they may have a slightly restricted view of the stage, particularly where the height of the stage prevents seeing the actors' feet!).
Returns lines form outside the theatre from around 8a.m, earlier for really hot shows and in summer. Tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. and continue to be sold as they come in, right through until curtain up time, so stick around until then - even if it seems "all hope" is gone, you never know! Wrap up warm, take refreshments, and be prepared to wait. Make sure that you also take BOTH credit cards AND cash too, to the value of the most expensive tickets (if you are prepared to pay it!). Some box offices insist that you pay with one or the other specifically, depending on the source of the tickets they are selling you.
A reader says,
"You can usually get really good returns at the Donmar for a Sat eve if you get there by about 6 and are prepared to wait; we got front row tickets for "Frost Nixon" for example. It's first come first served and the BO staff are really helpful, and you need cash. If there's two of you, one can sit and wait and the other can shop in Covent Garden, fetch supplies of food etc. I've had similar experiences for other sold out shows there and at the Almeida, more than once.
The Royal Court's system works on the basis that you turn up after a certain time on the day and get given a card with a number; you then go back at a certain time (I think half an hour before the start time, but you would need to check) and they sell off what they've had returned in the order of your numbered card. We got great tickets for 'the Seagull' last year (2007)."
Reader Mark also notes that unsold 'Day Seats' may end up being sold either online or by telephone through the central phoneroom of each theatre once demand at the counter has been satisfied.
Rush Seats and Ballots
Sometimes run by the theatre, sometimes on behalf of the theatre by todaytix.com. With Rush Tickets, the fastest on the app get to snap up cheap tickets on the day of performance at 10am as they go on sale. Pay and collect at the theatre as instructed. With Ballots, fill in the form - usually up to a week ahead, and winners are notified that they can buy tickets within a fixed time frame, between 4 and 24 hours before the show. If you don't want the seats or forget, next person drawn gets them.
If you don't have a smartphone, you can enter online or by email for some lotteries.
Manipulate the online system
Some booking systems - notably Nederlander Theatres - show performances as being "Sold Out" when you encounter the first "Choose your Date" calendar. If you click on a date that has tickets available, though, you can then use the "Change the Date" facility on the page to see if that is really true. The monkey has found that it isn't - and has gone on to select the date it really wants, and found a smattering of tickets that suited it very nicely.
Pay for the VIP treatment
Most theatres offer this service - ask the box office for details. Choose from champagne at the interval to a full meal, private rooms or just a programme and chocolates. All with the best seats included. Not cheap at £120 per person upwards, but memorable.
If you happen to be staying in a hotel with a concierge service, ask them to obtain seats for you. Members of the concierge service organisation 'Golden Keys' co-operate to make the impossible seem easy. It will cost plenty, but the tickets produced will not be stolen or fake - unlike those offered by ticket touts / scalpers. Information about the organisation is at http://www.goldenkeysconcierge.co.uk/ and this page provides a list of hotels at which members operate.
Scale the peaks
The busiest performances are Saturday then Friday evening. Next come Saturday and Sunday matinees, especially for child friendly shows e.g. The Lion King; and Thursday evenings. At the Royal National Theatre midweek matinees are also busy as mailing list members seem to prefer them and take many of the available tickets during their priority booking period. Choose Monday to Wednesday Evenings and midweek matinees (except at the National Theatre) as you stand a better chance in general.
Theatremonkey reckons Tuesday evenings and the midweek matinees often see the cast give the best performances of the week.
Extra performances of hit shows are often scheduled outside the normal pattern of Monday to Saturday night plus two afternoons. Either extra performances are added during a bank holiday week to make up for missed evenings / cash in on Christmas or School holiday time, or a charity midnight show will run as a fundraiser. Tickets often go on sale at short notice and seats are often left over on the day for casual walk-ins to buy. Charity galas may add a donation to the price, but in the cheapest seats it will often not be too much and at least you get to see the play.
Agencies, because they charge a bit more, can have tickets when the theatre has sold out. Check.
Do note, though, that many agents no longer have actual reserved "allocations," instead, they log into the theatre's stock and share that. This means of course that if the theatre is sold out, so is the agent. The only exceptions are the few agencies continuing with their own supplies, and those times when a company has bought tickets in advance and so may have some left.
Legitimate companies include embers include Lovetheatre.com - who operate the Theatremonkey Ticketshop, telephone 020 7420 9778 (0044 207 420 9778 if calling from outside the United Kingdom), Encore, Ticketmaster, Albemarle, Leicester Square Box Office, Group Line, See Tickets, LondonTheatreDirect, Ticket Web (a division of Ticketmaster which also sell on behalf of the Society Of London Theatres website), London Theatre Booking (incorporating Fenchurch and Rakes ticket agencies), Lashmar (part of Lovetheatre.com), Elondontickets, Ingresso (Fromtheboxoffice.com), lastminute.com (who sell via Encore) and Todaytix.
Local Coach Trips
Some coach tour companies within driving distance of London run inclusive trips combining a ticket with transport from their local area. These companies often schedule well ahead and will have bought great seats at group rates in anticipation of a new hit show. The result is a package for less than the price of a ticket alone. They have fifty coach seats to fill from the local population. Why not travel a little way out of town; see a new place in the day then join them for the trip. If staying in the West End just politely tell the driver you will not be returning with the coach to the starting point after the show.
Ticket Agencies in other countries often have access to an allocation of tickets reserved exclusively for London bound tourists. An overseas call or hit on their website gives access to theses tickets. Some may refuse to sell to UK credit card holders without overseas addresses, but it is worth a try.
Booking a hotel room with a theatre ticket included in the price can sometimes be done at short notice. If the hotel / tour company has pre purchased tickets to make into packages, this expensive method can save weeks of waiting. And provide that excuse for the weekend away you always wanted. Capital Breaks and Tickettree.com are ones to try.
Boxes and Restricted Views
Contact the box office by direct phone line or drop in. While increasingly most can be bought online (you get a warning when you do, that you have to accept); there are still some seats in boxes and behind pillars that are not generally publicised as being available to the public. Theatremonkey notes one occasion where the clerk didn't even know the seats existed, despite being marked on the plan in front of her!
Inevitably, some disgruntled theatregoer leaves a performance early. Try asking nicely to buy their ticket. Half a show is better than none. Similarly, touts stuck with tickets after curtain up can offer them cheap or even bin the tickets they were holding. Up to your morals to use this method.
You could even try offering cash / use of your yacht / mind or any legally tradable commodity, to arriving audience members. In theatremonkey's experience though, it never works.
Tickets for sold out events, notably concerts, are often offered for sale on online auction / marketplace sites. While sellers may well be legitimate, and abiding by the trading site's purchase codes, you have no way of telling who they are. Inadvertently you could be buying from a tout / scalper. Prices are also very high and there is no guarantee the venue will admit you even with your expensive ticket. "Let the buyer beware" is the motto here.
Theatremonkey does not endorse buying from these sources. Links from auctions to this website are not made by theatremonkey and theatremonkey.com DOES NOT take responsibility for the legitimacy of the seller or tickets being offered.
Death Rattles and Suntans
If a "star" name is off, either due to plague or scheduled holiday, the box office is often left with seats even if all other performances are sold out. You'll see the show - often with highly talented actors covering the star role - without having to wait.
Note that if an actor does suddenly fall victim to marauding germs, it means tickets often come available on the day as fans swap them for other performances (if the producer allows it). Worth asking the box office either by telephone or at the counter if you see "Tonight Mr Wonderful is Off" notices at the theatre.
Monkey advice is to ignore the "hype" surrounding the concept of "sold out shows". The only time a show really will be a tough ticket to get is if it is staged in a venue with less than 300 to 400 seats - the Donmar Warehouse, Trafalgar Studio 2, Royal Court and Pit only. Other London theatres are much larger and take a little more filling!
Very often, once initial press coverage has died down (around two weeks in London) those who bought tickets have second thoughts - and frequently return them to the box office.
To give one example, a play starring a well known actress was said to be "sold out" for the entire run. In actuality, the theatre was getting back more seats than it could sell - so every night there were a few tickets left....worth remembering, thinks the monkey.
Final, final note for Pop Concert fans...
Like theatre, tickets for press-hyped sold out events are actually often easier to obtain than folk think. If you miss out in the initial ballyhoo when "tickets all sold out in 1 hour on the first day they went on sale," then monkey advice is to "wait and see."
First, when things have settled down a few hours or days later, often checking official websites reveal single tickets left for a particular date.
Around 4 to 6 weeks before the show takes place things get even clearer. The stage design is fixed and so some seats that were held back in case they had a restricted view / were needed for technical reasons are placed on sale. At the same time, unsold tickets from package tour operators and agencies as well as unwanted VIP tickets are also released... and may even trickle back on sale up until the night of the show! Basically, by waiting rather than feeding the greed of an auction site tout, you'll often get stunning seats near the front without the hassle of the opening day sales fight.
A reader relates her own experiences,
"When trying to book Miley Cyrus tickets in 2009, I rang Ticketmaster up and they said to me, "Oh, more seats will be released," - which meant another show. The same as with Barry Manilow 2008. So, be friendly and they will give you information.
Also, they hold back tickets until the last week. I was looking at the second Jonas Brothers show at Wembley and getting not very good seats until about 5 days before - where I was getting central seats as the concert was in the round. These were near disabled seats which they might release to fill the gaps where the artists could see them from the stage."
It doesn't happen this way every time of course, but the monkey finds that it holds at least 9 times out of 10...
Also worth noting is a reader's experience of "pre sale" priority booking, in 2010,
"I paid £29 with fees for each ticket from a presale for "The Wanted" and I got block 2 in the stalls, Row S, seats 69 to 70. I was wondering do I have a claim to email the company and ask why I have got such bad seats from a presale? I have paid a total of £60 on these two tickets and I struggled with a crashed website and when the site came back on I had to book tickets on my phone."
The monkey notes that "pre sale" is usually from an allocation of tickets... and they may not be the best available...