Premium price inflation and bargains galore

The TKTS booth in Leicester Square offers discounted tickets to West End shows.
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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Just two and a half years ago, the Daily Telegraph wondered aloud in a headline to a feature on West End ticket prices, "Are they out of control?" The feature pointed out, too, that "a good view of the action is going to set you back a minimum of £50 in 30 out of 40 cases, subsidised theatres excluded", with a figure of about £60 the then benchmark for musicals.

This autumn's big new musical Made in Dagenham is now pushing the top price closer to £70, with a 'regular' top price ticket of £69.50. But as the Telegraph pointed out in 2011, "even that figure is dwarfed by the 'premium seat' option, a 'deluxe' price band that has crossed the Atlantic from Broadway." (Made in Dagenham's premium prices are selling at £90).

When these were first introduced, they were for a limited number of prime seats in the centre stalls and front dress circle.  As Carrie Dunn pointed out in a Guardian blog back in 2009, "When cinemas offer premium seats, they're often covered in plusher fabric, with squashier cushioning and more legroom. When theatres do it, they're the same bog-standard seats as always, but in the best positions."

But there's a bigger inflation at work, too, as these now spread from the "best positions" to much of the stalls for hot shows. Trying to find a seat for the heavily sold revival of Skylight, for instance, that opens this week at Wyndham's, and the regular 'top price' of £64.75 may secure you a seat five rows from the back of the stalls; to move to better seats in row H, J or K, you have to scale up to the premium price of £99.75.

So we've nearly crashed the £100 mark for a play that features just three actors. But if that's shocking enough, last year's The Audience, with a rather bigger cast, already breached it, with premium seats at £125.  Meanwhile, The Book of Mormon has already set the premium ticket record with tickets at £152.25. If you search out 'regular' top price seats of £74.75, you'll be relegated to the side and rear stalls; centre and middle stalls are only available at a premium mark-up. (There's also a second premium price of £127.25 available).

This is, of course, the supply-and-demand economics of theatre in plain view; as sales are tracked, prices can be adjusted in a nono-second for the exact same seats. The value of a ticket is, after all, not an objective reality, just what someone is prepared to paid to sit there for a particular performance.

But while prices for the lucky few (for both those who can charge and afford them) escalate in this way, there's a desperation at the other end of the market to offload unsold inventory. Theatre tickets, like airline ones, are an instantly perishable commodity; the moment the curtain rises, or the plane takes off, unsold tickets are dead, never to realise any value.

So no wonder most shows offer any number of special offers to entice theatregoers to visit them. Visit theatremonkey.com, as I regularly do, and you'll find a seemingly bottomless pit of current offers out there. There are even offers on shows yet to open, like Made in Dagenham (non-premium best seats down to £54.50 from £69.50) or Memphis (non-premium best seats down to £40 from £62.50, with afternoon tea thrown in before at a nearby hotel).

An American friend (who now lives in Italy) is over this week and he's relishing the opportunity to catch up on West End theatre at a fraction of the price of seeing a show on Broadway. That's not because our ticket prices are so much lower than those on Broadway now (we are heading towards matching them in some regards), but because he's discovered that he can get 'day' tickets for most shows at even more substantial discounts. You can't book these in advance, it's true, but if you have some flexibility – and for the hotter shows, a bit of determination, too – most shows now offer heavily discounted seats, often in the front row of the stalls, for sale on the day. (These are often even available online).

Another friend told me just how determined he had to be, when he queued last week for day seats to see Kevin Spacey in the otherwise sold out Clarence Darrow at the Old Vic from 6.15am. But that's the exception, not the rule; elsewhere, you can often get to the box office at any time before the show actually starts and secure a day seat.

So you don't have to pay through the nose to go to the theatre, or to sit in the nosebleed seats if you want to pay less.

This week's edition of The Stage will feature our annual West End ticket price survey, to get access to the digital edition of The Stage, subscribe here.