London Theatre Guide – a cat’s eye view of West End theatre

londontheareguide

I’m Winston. The Theatre Cat.

TheatrePaws

Want to bag front row seats on the day for twenty quid? Fancy a gamble on the Book of Mormon Lottery? Missed out on City of Angels at the Donmar Warehouse?

Maybe you want to avoid wasting money on a complete turkey, but don’t have time to plough through endless reviews?

 

I’ve spent my whole life around Theatre. And not just chasing mice. I’m free to wander onstage, backstage, front of house and right through the box office.

You need to know what to ask, how to ask for it and most importantly, HOW TO GET IT!

Want to know how to get house seats – or even what they are? Fancy snooping in Wardrobe or seeing where the actors hang out after the show? Then I’m your new best friend.

Let me take you on a trip around the West End.

paw
Love from Winston

 

 

Getting Started

google

If you google West End Theatre, you won’t be short of search results. You’ll find a mixture of sponsored links to private ticket agents, followed by Wikipedia and, if you’re lucky, decent sites like http://www.fromtheboxoffice.com ;). Spending just a little time now will ensure you don’t get ripped off, and have an unforgettable trip for all the right reasons.

Make sure the site you’re booking through is a STAR member. Clicking on the site’s logo (below) should take you through to a verification pop-up or the main STAR website. Beware sites that look official but aren’t!

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Even STAR members will normally charge fees, possibly including a “normal” booking fee and then postage. No site should ever charge fees of more than 25% of the face value on the ticket. If you’re lucky enough to be able to visit the theatre in person, you can normally avoid booking fees completely. Box offices inside the theatre normally open from 10am on days when there is a show (later on Sundays).

Day Seats

Some nice West End Theatre producers (yes, they do exist) offer true theatre fans the chance to buy a last minute ticket at a great price through a system known as “Day Seats”. Not all shows do this, but some truly great seats can be snapped up by queuing at the box office on the morning of the performance.

book of mormon

Book of Mormon Lottery
Twenty-one tickets for each performance are sold through an on-the-day lottery at the theatre for £20 each. Entries accepted 2½ hours prior to each performance. Names drawn at random with a limit of one entry per person and up to two tickets per winner. Tickets subject to availability. All entries checked for duplication. Winners must be present at the time of the draw and have valid ID.


Other shows offering day seats include:
The Curious Incident the Dog in the Night Time, Urinetown, The Scottsboro Boys, Billy Elliot and Wicked. Refer to individual Theatre websites for the most up to date information.

Winston’s top tip: Always take both cash and credit/debit card, photo ID, and be prepared to queue early – often from 8am. Check in advance with the box office if you can to see what time people start arriving and remember that day seats are normally limited to 2 per person!

It’s 10am…I have my day seats. What shall I do until tonight?
You’re spoilt for choice in London. If you’re in and around Soho, check out the Algerian Coffee Store just along from the Prince Edward Theatre…you won’t find tables and chairs, but it’s worth popping in for the aroma alone. From there, a leisurely mooch though Chinatown and down Charing Cross Road will take you parish church of the Royal Family – St Martin in the Fields. There are often free lunchtime recitals here, and underneath you’ll find a lovely refectory-style café, restaurant and shop.

Check out the National Gallery, Portrait Gallery and then if you have a bit of sandwich left over, you’re a short stroll away from the quite lovely St James’s Park. The swans, ducks, pelicans and squirrels will gladly relieve you of any leftovers.

A little further away, near the Dominion Theatre, is the British Museum. Wherever you are from in the World, you’ll find something we’ve stolen from your country…but being generous Brits, we won’t charge you to get in to see it. That’s just for starters. Why not check out The Natural History Museum, Science Museum, V&A, Tate Modern, Tate Britain…the problem you’ll have in London is simply fitting it all in!

House Seats
house seat

All theatres, even those with Sold Out shows, have House Seats. House Seats will almost always be the best seats in the theatre, and are held for the Producer and Front of House manager to use on the day of performance. Some will be held to use in the event of problems such as double bookings, but for long running shows, with the Producer or Front of House manager’s say-so, the box office may release them for sale just before the performance. Exact timings vary, but it’s always worth asking the box office team when (and if) house seats may be released for sale.

Winston’s little guide to reviews

ironmask
Behind The Iron Mask: A legend in it’s time for possibly the worst reviews in the history of West End Theatre


“I would quite happily have volunteered for death myself to help speed things up”
Lyn Gardner’s Guardian review for Behind The Iron Mask at the Duchess Theatre

Everyone loves a good review, but the bad ones can make delicious reading too – often more fun than the show itself. But do you really want to waste your hard earned cash on a flop? If you have time and you’re passing through Leicester Square, head to the handy little reference library on St Martin’s Street (opposite the tkts ticket booth). The library keeps all the reviews for both current and past West End shows.  It’s also an oasis of calm on a hectic afternoon!

Alternatively, if life’s too short for all that, you can simply visit www.fromtheboxoffice.com and  there you will find both audience and critics reviews for all current shows.

Winston’s top tip: Take reviews with a pinch of salt. The West End’s longest running musical, Les Miserables, was slated by critics when it opened in 1985 but it’s done rather well since then.

Hot tips from a Front of House manager

front of house

What if I’m late?

Check your tickets when you get them! It’s all too easy to arrive at the wrong time, on the wrong day, or even at the wrong theatre. I’ve seen people sitting on Shaftesbury Avenue, forlorn, their tears falling like rain into the gutter having gone to the wrong Apollo. Allow time for traffic, parking and public transport. Latecomers will normally be admitted at a suitable break in the performance (eg the end of a song or scene), but this varies and some shows won’t even admit you if you arrive after curtain-up.

Fancy a tipple?

You’re guaranteed two things at most theatres; to queue for a drink, and to queue for the ladies loo! You can avoid the queue at the bar by pre-ordering your interval drinks. The bar-staff will let you know where to collect them. That way you’ll have time to enjoy the drink AND use the loo (of which there are never enough). If you’re lucky, you’ll often find a pub or bar nearby which will charge considerably less than the theatre, and will have enough toilets for both its regulars and you! Just remember that you may be asked to show your tickets to re-enter the theatre…and in the pub there’s no bell to remind you that Act 2 is about to start!

Suited and booted?

The West End’s  theatres are pretty relaxed – much more so than their Broadway counterparts. Whilst some people may choose to wear jacket/tie or evening dress, you’ll generally find all sorts; jeans, suits, t-shirts, little black dresses and baseball caps. The emphasis is, be comfortable. Notable exceptions to this are Gala performances, and most performances at the Royal Opera House. Overseas visitors often assume that Dress Circle means that you need to dress up – that may have have been the case once upon a time, but now it only means you’re sitting upstairs.

Too Cool for Cats?

Bear in mind that with some theatres being air conditioned (though not all), it’s probably better to wear something cool, but still have a cardigan with you – even in summer!

Buyer Beware!

There is no convention in West End Theatres for naming seating levels. Some theatres may use the term Royal Circle to mean the first level up, for others it could be the second. Similarly, Balcony can mean different things in different venues. The safest bet is always to ask when you book; If you’re booking online, many sites will have a seating plan (on our site you can select seats live from the seating plan, so you know where you’ll be seating!). If you’re visiting from the US, then what you may call the Orchestra or Orchestra Stalls, UK theatres refer to as simply “Stalls” – it means the same thing.

Paying a Premium?

The idea for Premium Seats came from Broadway, where canny Theatre Owners and Producers wanted a way for punters desperate to see a sell-out show not to have to use ticket touts. It’s a clever idea – by charging a huge premium on a “normal” top price ticket, the touts stopped buying them, and people with deep pockets and money to burn could find great seats direct from the box office, even at the last minute. Sadly, the idea proved a bit too successful and now, even shows that aren’t sold out have jumped on the bandwagon. NEVER buy premium seats unless you have to – they are no better than “normal” top price seats. Unless it’s a genuine “hot ticket”, save your pennies.

What if something goes wrong?

Front of House staff are there to help and if you’re nice to them they’ll be nice to you. If you are 5’1”, and someone with a beehive and top hat sits in front of you, so long as the theatre isn’t full and there’s time before curtain up, the Front of House Manager may be able to offer you an alternative seat. But bear in mind that if you speak to the FOH Manager as the show is beginning, they’ll have their hands full and it may have to wait till the interval! If you’ve lost/forgotten your tickets, speak to the venue box office as soon as you arrive. They will always try to help, providing they can trace your booking.

Running Times

Sometimes this will be printed on your ticket and will normally include the interval. If not, check online or with the box office. Running times may vary slightly during previews, but for long-running shows will normally be consistent.

Getting home

This is often a concern for London Theatregoers. Fortunately, most lines on the Tube (London Underground) run well past midnight – soon there will be a 24 hour service on some lines at weekends. London’s Night Buses also run frequently through Central London. If you’re travelling further afield, do check as some trains out of London stop running early. London is well served for Black Cabs – if the little orange light on the top is lit up, it means the cab is available. Stick your arm out and wave, and like magic, the cab will stop! It’s not the cheapest way to get home, but if you’re lucky the driver will tell you all about famous people he’s driven and his views on the current government.
www.tfl.gov.uk – to plan your journey to/from the theatre.

If you are coming by train, you can consult the National Rail website for times, fares and a journey planner. They also have live departure boards, which is very useful.

www.thetrainline.com – useful train timetables and user friendly.

Night owls

If you didn’t arrive by pumpkin, and fancy capping off your theatre trip in style, why not try the legendary Joe Allens? You’re almost guaranteed to be eating alongside actors from some of the West End’s finest shows – it’s fun to see who you can spot! It’s a little tricky to find with a very unassuming entrance on Exeter Street, but if you find the Lyceum Theatre (Lion King), you’re almost there. Alternatively, if your taste tends to shabby chic and a good old sing-a-long, there’s normally a pianist playing in the Players Bar at the Charing Cross Theatre until around 2.30am. Drinks aren’t too expensive, and it’s fun to stagger out into the night with show-tunes ringing in your ears.
www.joeallen.co.uk 13 Exeter Street London WC2E 7DT 020 7836 0651
www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk The Arches, Villiers Street, London WC2N 6NL

Behind the scenes

If you’re a curious cat like me, but you’re too big to sneak in through the cat-flap, try a backstage tour. They won’t break the bank, and they offer a fascinating glimpse into a side of theatre most people never see.

http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/discover/backstage-tours

http://www.roh.org.uk/tours/backstage-tour

http://www.reallyusefultheatres.co.uk/specials-vip-hospitality/offers/tours

http://www.eno.org/guidedtours

Winston’s top tip for backstage tours: Wear something old. While most theatres are very glamorous out front, backstage they are generally held together with gaffer tape and a lot of crossed fingers.

Useful links

www.star.org.uk – only ever book where you see this logo

www.whatsonstage.com – the buzz about what’s happening in the West End

www.broadwayworld.com – info and gossip from both sides of the pond

www.fromtheboxoffice.com – for booking tickets, discounts and reviews.

www.tfl.gov.uk – plan your journey