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Are theatre fans being penalised for booking tickets early?

Audience members could be paying an £87.50 premium to sit just two rows closer to the stage at The Book of Mormon. Photo: Johan Persson
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We live in an age where the price tag for everything is no longer what is stated on the official label. The price for a lot of things, it seems, is subject to variable conditions.

Airlines and hotels have long played this game, adjusting prices according to demand. Sometimes early bookers are rewarded. Other times, they’re penalised when a flash sale is announced just days after they’ve paid full whack.

The world of theatre has now caught on, and not only does it now pay to shop around, it no longer necessarily pays to book early. The latter is surely an unintended consequence: most businesses prefer to bank a customer’s money as early as possible.

One reader recently wrote to me to complain about booking a ticket for Made in Dagenham for last weekend’s Saturday matinee. He booked directly at the Adelphi box office in person about six months ago, and bought a favoured rear stalls seat in Row W for £55.

It turns out these seats are now officially being sold for £35, not £55, so he’s effectively overpaid by £20. “Maybe there is no point in booking tickets months in advance from official sources?” he wrote. Faced with the evidence, it’s hard to disagree.

Of course, tickets can also go in the other direction. If you want to book stalls tickets to see Once at the Phoenix this week, prices range from £22 to £97.50. If you want to go next week, however, tickets now go up to £127.50. What’s the difference? Ronan Keating joins the cast next week, so suddenly there’s a £30 premium.

But interrogate the levels further (through the official box office channel of ATG’s own website) and there’s a bewildering range of options at the top end.

ATG’s prices for Once tickets
ATG’s prices for Once tickets

There’s Band A (£75) and Band A Plus (for the same price, but including a VIP package) to Premium Band A (£90, including VIP lounge entry, drink and nibbles), ATG SuperSeat (also £90), Premium Seats (£100), and Super Premiums (£127.50).

Many more seats on the seating plan (going back as far as Row K on some of the performances I inspected) have been designated as premium seats, with the old top price Band A now relegated to the side and rear stalls. But even more odd: the so-called ATG SuperSeats and Premium Band A (including the lounge access, drink and nibbles) are, at £90, a full £10 cheaper than the regular Premium Seats right beside them in Row J.

So regular premium customers are charged £10 more for fewer privileges. It’s simply baffling. I could bet my bottom dollar (or pound) that those premium prices will be discounted to ‘regular’ tariffs if they don’t shift (and the seating plans for the next month do indicate that there’s still a lot of inventory).

Once again it looks as though early bookers are being penalised, apart from one small concession: ATG has a new early bird offer, in which those who book more than six weeks ahead are given a free upgrade to the next priced ticket. And if they book three weeks ahead, they’re not charged a booking fee.

That doesn’t change the fact that there’s no consistency in this freestyle theatrical economy. Crazy anomalies start popping up everywhere you look.

I looked online for the following day’s matinee for The Book of Mormon, and seats were available in Row G of the stalls at the top matinee premium price of £127.25, side-by-side with others at the regular premium price of £99.75, while a few more seats along (in the same row and the row immediately in front) they were selling at the regular top price of £74.75. Two more rows behind, you could also get a side stalls seat for just £39.75. So people sitting within two rows of each other could be paying £87.50 more to watch the same show.

Some of the identical Row G stalls seat were also available for the Wednesday evening performance of The Book of Mormon, but now the premium price is £152.25, side-by-side with others at the other premium price of £127.25.

Of course, theatre producers are free to regulate and set their prices at whatever they feel the market will bear. But there’s something unbearable about it all being so fluid and confusing. And surely there’s also something counterproductive, too: audiences are being told that if they hang on, they have a good chance of scoring a much better bargain.

Read more columns from Mark Shenton


The Stage Awards 2015