Is the West End worth it?

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Posted: Mon Sep 19 2011

With ticket prices approaching £100 for big shows, we look into how much bang you get for your buck.

Let's call it the Waitrose theory. Those who can afford a luxury item are actually happy to pay more for it, because the high price confirms its value. It's a notion that now props up the whole structure of West End ticket pricing (oh, and our semi-collapsing financial system).

Demand, not value, dictates price: from that permanent Broadway import the 'Premium Seat', down the slippery slope of heavily discounted tickets to the so-called cheap seats which, with a face value of more than £25 for big musicals like 'Ghost' and 'Legally Blonde', are 'cheap' only in the same sense that they are comfortable.

Caught in a maze of burgeoning ticket prices and the Hydra-like proliferation of online ticket agencies, what's a confused consumer to do? Shop around, plan ahead, go midweek and keep a sharp eye out for hidden fees like the deeply unpopular transaction charge levied by many agencies. And snap up cheap tickets for shows which are good but not feel-good popular, like Out of Joint's revival of 'Top Girls', currently at Trafalgar Studios. But will escalating ticket prices drive down demand for the West End? And, in the post-Groupon universe where more than half of theatre-goers last year got a discount, what price are tickets, really?

It's easy to wring your hands over premium seats, the leading edge of ticket pricing. Essentially, they are good stalls seats which sell, on a Saturday night, at £95 for blockbuster musicals like 'Billy Elliot' and 'Shrek'. They have good sightlines, but you pay for access not leg-room (in New York, 'Book of Mormon' has the highest priced premium ticket in town, a whopping $477, precisely because it's a big hit in a smallish venue).

The Barbican's recent transfer of 'South Pacific' went further than ever in London, pricing the majority of its stalls seats at £85. The show's head of marketing Damien Hewitt defends the price on the grounds that, 'We are a premium show with a short run of only seven weeks.' Despite some empty stalls seats, people have coughed up with 'very little price resistance': so far, 86 per cent of 'South Pacific's tickets have been sold at full price.

In New York, where premium tickets originated, they account for about two per cent of sales in a typical week. As producer Mark Rubinstein explains, premium seats were 'copied slavishly' in the West End as a way of shows trousering some of the extra profit made by third-party sellers hiking prices when demand was high: 'You'd be selling your ticket for £45 and agencies would be selling it on for £90. It's a way of more money going to the work of the people you're going to see.'

More worrying is the price-creep at the lower end - and the practise of inflating face value ticket prices in order to make the inevitable discount look better. In 2010, average ticket price asked at Society of London Theatre (Solt) venues (all the commercial West End and some Off-West End houses like the Donmar) was £45.12. That's a £4.14 increase in 4 years. But compare that to the real average price paid by theatre-goers: £36.20, about 75 per cent of face value and only £1.74 more than in 2007.

So who are the suckers in the new ticket market? Premium ticket buyers - though they're happy suckers with money to spend and, quite possibly, corporate guests to entertain. And, it seems, those theatre-goers who still pay full price. But are the producers and theatre-owners suckers too? Doesn't face value inflation plus aggressive discounting risk devaluing what, for most people, is a luxury occasion? High stakes (and high rents) already discourage creativity on a West End which hasn't produced a decent British musical for yonks.

Solt reports that their members sold 70 per cent of available tickets in 2010, down by two per cent on 2009. But the National runs three houses at more than 90 per cent full thanks partly to £12 Travelex-sponsored tickets, the best value in town. OK, it controls its own ticket supply and can forward-plan. But the strategy can work on the West End too: Michael Grandage's Donmar's West End residency at Wyndhams recouped with top price tickets of £32.50 - and circle seats at £10. So why don't more shows try to fill their houses instead of hiking their cheap seat prices?

National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner argues that the 'branding of Travelex is more important than the subsidy. If you offer a bargain in order to get good work seen, it's a success. If you cut prices after having inflated them the public tends to think it has been sold something substandard.'

The NT has risked its own shirt on two profit-making shows in the West End: 'One Man, Two Guvnors' and 'War Horse'. Both have premium stalls seats for £85. But the premium price directly subsidises the cheap seats. 'In the long term,' says Hytner, 'it is nuts to push up the prices of cheap seats which are cheap for a good reason.' But the West End is a volatile marketplace, not a centrally planned subsidised theatre. Consumers be warned: Solt hopes to clarify ticket sales but, until then, better keep your wits about you.


Plan ahead
Airline pricing is all the rage and organised show-goers get to pick seats at decent prices. Check Time Out's long-range online previews and take a punt on one of the last preview nights for a significant discount.

Shop around
Almost all big shows sell tickets via various agencies. If your ticket supplier doesn't have the right tickets on the right night, don't assume no-one else does.

Watch out for hidden fees
Booking/transaction fees can be a nasty sting at point of sale. They vary from £0 (when you're booking with the NT for a West End transfer) to more than £5.

Go midweek
Theatres sell the most tickets at a premium on Friday and Saturday nights. Try Tuesday or Wednesday for good seats at better prices.

Use the seatmap wisely
Aisle seats have more legroom and access to the loos, which are oversubscribed every night of the week. Some theatres, eg Drury Lane or the Apollo Victoria, have an extra leg-room row at the front of the top block of stalls seats.

Get down on the day
Sometimes, going in person beats internet discounts hollow. See our show-by-show guide.