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 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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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.

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