The sell-out hit – over five months before it opens

Josie Rourke and Kate Pakenham are artistic director and executive producer of the Donmar Warehouse. Photo: Hugo Glendinning
Josie Rourke and Kate Pakenham are artistic director and executive producer of the Donmar Warehouse. Photo: Hugo Glendinning
Mark writes regularly for The Stage, including reviews from London and the regions, features and, since 2005, a daily online column.
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There are some shows that you can't give tickets away to, as witness the recent West End fates of Stephen Ward and I Can't Sing! But both of them were playing in large West End theatres on open-ended runs. There was hardly any urgency around securing tickets for them. And despite favourable reviews from many critics for both, the public showed their indifference and stayed away. (For once, the critics couldn't be blamed for their failure).

On the other hand, the smaller the venue (and the more limited the run) sees the ante upped: you'll need to move fast or you won't stand a chance of getting in. In The Heights, the 2008 Tony winning Broadway musical that recently had its British premiere at the 180-seater Southwark Playhouse, arrived as a bit of an unknown quantity, but it quickly became the hottest ticket in town. (With top price tickets of just £22 – and £12 for previews – it was a serious bargain, too).

In fact nowadays I hardly ever go to a fringe musical nowadays that isn't packed. On Saturday I saw the last preview of Carousel that opens tonight at the Arcola, and there were only a sprinkling of free seats on the upper level. With full price tickets at just £21 and a cast full of West End actors, it once again proves that you don't need to pay up to five times that price to see a quality show in the West End anymore: the fringe is making musicals affordable again.

But once word gets out on this production, it will no doubt sell out straight away (so let this be an early warning to you!). There are other times, though, where you can't afford, in any sense, to wait until the word even begins to spread about a show: the Donmar's Christmas revival of the 1989 Broadway musical City of Angels isn't even fully cast yet, let alone in rehearsal given that it doesn't begin performances for over five months, yet when tickets went on public sale last Wednesday the entire run was sold out in a matter of minutes.

It turns out that most tickets made available for sale had already gone to people who had signed up for the theatre's priority booking memberships, which start at £75. Tickets were released in two different levels over five dates ahead of the public booking date. I received a frustrated e-mail from a Twitter follower explaining what happened when he tried to book then:

At 8.50 this morning I logged into the system and had a note on screen 'booking opens at 9am - please stay on this page and it will refresh automatically. I opened 17 (yes 17) tabs picking 17 dates including Mondays, midweek matinees and Saturday matinees to try and avoid the most obvious days (Fridays and Saturday evenings). At 9am on the dot the pages started coming through. Either no tickets available or 2nd or 3rd row (back row) circle. At no stage was one single stalls seat ever available.

Across a run of 64 performances, and with the Donmar seating capacity of 250 seats, that means a total inventory of 16,000 tickets is available. My correspondent, however, noted with some consternation: "I am sure there are not 4,000 friends of the Donmar to take up every single stalls seat across the run and every front row circle seat across the entire run."

The new culture secretary Sajid Javid recently told The Guardian, "I didn't grow up in the kind of family that went to the Donmar Warehouse, or even the Bristol Old Vic. To be frank, it was a treat to get out to the cinema to see a movie." He didn't specify whether that was because his family couldn't actually get a ticket or not (though I spotted him recently at the completely sold out Clarence Darrow at the Old Vic, so I assume he's found a way of getting tickets nowadays if not).

The Donmar's artistic director Josie Rourke wrote to the Guardian, in turn, to protest: she is making her theatre more accessible than ever.

I couldn't agree more with Javid's commitment to arts inclusion. I inherited a theatre which people perceived as closed to all but its members. I thought it was too. Popular shows sell out and people who can't get in sometimes get angry, but that's why we now hold back nearly 500 cheap tickets to go on sale every week.

And the people who sit in those 500 seats? "More than half of those," she added, "had never been to the Donmar before."

Of course selling out in advance is a nice problem to have -- there's obviously a public out there who trust its work enough to want to come before they've even begun rehearsals. And Rourke is, within the confines of her seating capacity, stretching availability to those with enough determination and/or luck when the Front Row seats are released on a weekly basis.

But the irony is even greater that the effort has increased so much, given that City of Angels is actually a show that failed on its first West End outing in 1993. It announced its closure on the very day that Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard opened in the West End. As Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times 

at the time:

City of Angels received rave reviews, and its box-office collapse was blamed on the gravity of the recession and the declining sophistication of West End audiences. Since both Angels and Sunset Boulevard happen to be about Hollywood in the late 1940's, the abrupt failure of the American show cast a particular pall over Mr. Lloyd Webber's gala premiere.

As we now know, Sunset Boulevard would have its own turbulent history even without the comparison. I personally can't wait for a Donmar Warehouse production that would no doubt sell out instantly.

7 Comments

  1. Sajid Javid’s comment about not growing up in the kind of family … etc, are disingenuous. Did he grow up in a family of investment bankers? So how did he get to be one? Nobody has to go to the theatre. To claim there are problems of inclusiveness because he chose not to go is not convincing. What about people who don’t grow up in a sporty families and who find the thought of attending a sporting event offputting because ticket prices are high, there are codes of behaviour that they do not understand – not to mention having to get to grips with the rules of the game. Should they blame sporting venues for excluding them? I think not.

  2. I am one of those that pay the £75 and I have supported the Donmar since the early nineties, you seem to be suggesting I feel some kind of shame for supporting theatre and getting the small benefit of a couple of days advance booking. I also support the RNT, Chichester and the RSC. If People like me don’t support theatres then they will shrivel and eventually die and your professional Raison d’être for existing becomes even more precarious. Instead of encouraging people to be jealous of those that take their time and money supporting theatres; You should be encouraging more people to put their money up front and support theatres.
    By the way If City of Angels is a hit then it will no doubt transfer and more people will be able to see it, at inflated West End Prices, but that’s another story.

  3. Even though my membership has just jumped from £30 to £75 I was cautioned not to let it lapse because there is a very long waiting list to become a member and little chance of getting onto it again. But if I want to get in I have no choice but to pay that exorbitant increase in support. One of the problems appears to be that booking has been taken over by AGT.It’s all very well to offer some front row seats at £10 only bookable on the week of performances but then try to make up the loss by making
    the long time supporters like myself pay through the nose to stand a chance of getting in.

  4. I’m afraid that however nice it is that ‘the fringe is making musicals affordable again’ – the main reason for this is that the actors are paid nothing or barely enough to cover travel costs.

  5. While I admire your continued enthusiasm for fringe musicals and the bargain that they are, my experience with them has been that there are between 1 and 4 terrific performers in those productions, and the rest of the cast is made up of performers who are more enthusiastic than anything else. And the physical productions of these shows are understandably inferior to a West End or subsidized theatre production. there may be inventiveness there, but it’s simply not the same experience as a first class revival of a show. It might be a more satisfying one because of its exuberance and good will , but it ain’t the same and to give a fringeproduction 4 or 5 stars and at the same time give a west end show 3 stars – well, it’s apples and oranges. Critics should give their audiences fair warning as to the overall quality of the performance and the experience if it is in fact performed in a dank runner with folding chairs and a black wooden platform rather than a recreation of a great luxury liner.

  6. As a Donmar member I find it hard to get any decent seats and it seems to get worse every year. I have to say that I think the Donmar’s Front Row scheme is unfair to the members who support the theatre through thick and thin. And I really would like to know who gets them as often they don’t look like first time theater goers to me. If this scheme was really fair then why not sell them on the day.

  7. That email from your reader is perhaps a bit of a “personal matter of perception.”
    EXACTLY the same happened to me… yet I was grinning from ear-to-ear all day when I actually managed to get anything at all – let alone the actual single aisle circle seat I’d hoped for.
    Sure, I would have liked a stalls choice too, but Barry and Michael are right. Those who are long-term supporters have paid and get first choice.
    So long as I can get in at all, I’m delighted.

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