It is a truth universally acknowledged that theatre tickets in major theatre cities can be eye-wateringly expensive. Particularly London's West End and New York's Broadway, tickets can quickly become prohibitively expensive. For example, in 2017, Lin-Manuel Miranda's widely praised hip-hop musical Hamilton broke records for the highest ever theatre ticket price, with tickets during Christmas week going for a staggering $1,150 a seat.
With one of the most acclaimed theatre scenes in the world, London’s West End has also seen prices soar in recent years. Unsurprisingly, the record ticket price in the UK at £250 a seat is also held by Hamilton in the West End. The Stage has undertaken an annual survey to track ticket prices, and in 2018 the average top-price ticket exceeded £100 for the first time. But it's not all doom and gloom. The same survey found that the cheapest tickets for shows decreased by 10% to just over £19 a seat. So, there are cheap tickets out there – you just need to know how to get your hands on them.
Why are theatre seats so expensive?
There are a few reasons theatre tickets are becoming so expensive in London and across the world. The most obvious reason is inflation, but there are others.
Increasing disparity in ticket prices
Another reason is actually what The Stage documented with their surveys. The most expensive tickets are getting more expensive, but many of the cheapest tickets are getting cheaper. Theatres often report that their highest-priced tickets are some of the first to sell. It's easy to forget that theatres are businesses at the end of the day. If people are willing to pay extraordinary prices, the theatres will continue to sell tickets at that price. The bonus of this is that those top-tier tickets' high-profit margins allow theatres to sell cheaper tickets at a slightly lower profit margin. This makes theatre productions more accessible to people at different earning levels, which is ultimately good for theatres as they will sell out more often. The more people who can access their shows, the more people will talk about it and encourage their friends to go, too.
Theatre productions in London employ thousands of people. For a show to run, it needs to employ actors, set designers, lighting technicians, front of house staff, a marketing team, costume designers, writers, and many others. The industry employs many people, all of whom deserve to be paid fairly for their work. Unions like BECTU and Equity recommend minimum wages for those working in theatres. When these rise, ticket prices often have to rise, too. Most London theatre productions earn most, if not all, of their profit from ticket sales, and wages are one of the many costs they need to cover.
Like any business, theatre's need to account for unforeseen costs, making sure they have enough cash in reserve to stay afloat should the worst happen. Never is that more relevant than it is now. We'll likely see the average price of show tickets rise over the next few years as companies try to recoup money lost during the Covid-19 pandemic. While schemes and bursaries from the government’s budget helped some theatres avoid losing too much money, many will inevitably have significant sunk costs from 2020 and 2021. As a result, they will have to increase ticket prices to remain viable as a business.
Why look for cheap tickets?
The reasons for rising ticket prices all make sense, so why look for cheap tickets? For many theatre fans, cheap tickets are their only route to accessing all of the fantastic productions London's West End has to offer. Everyone deserves to have the chance to experience the joy of theatre on stage, and having cheaper tickets available makes this available to more people.
On top of this, the ticket price is often not the only expense for those visiting the theatre. If you don't live in London, you might have to travel in by train or by car, which requires the additional costs of train tickets, petrol and parking. These are not insignificant costs and can easily exceed the theatre ticket's price if you live further from London. Many who live further afield also have to consider finding accommodation. Many theatre shows don't finish until 10 or 11 in the evening, making it difficult to travel back home the same night if you live further from London. This means looking for a hotel or an Airbnb, which can also be expensive in the capital. Finding cheap tickets can help make the trip as a whole more affordable.
Most theatre fans don't want just to see one show; they'll probably have a few shows of the hundreds scheduled in the UK each year on their list. To keep costs down, you can certainly catch a few using streaming services like National Theatre at Home or Disney+. Still, nothing beats the in-person atmosphere of a theatre, and there's some you just won't want to miss being in the room where it happens.
How to find cheap theatre tickets in London?
Generally, booking events online is often cheaper than booking at a venue. You can compare the prices of different seats, times and websites to ensure you're getting the best deal. We would encourage you to check both the website of the venue hosting the show and a couple of third-party sites. You'll often find the lowest prices on the venue's site because they don't have to pay the fees charged by many third-party ticket sales websites. However, occasionally third-party ticketing sites like London Theatre, Time Out and Today Tix will have scored deals from the theatres allowing them to sell tickets at a better price. So always make sure to check both just in case!
Go to the TKTS kiosk
The TKTS kiosk is well-known amongst Londoners and tourists alike for getting cheap last-minute tickets to London shows. Situated on the southern side of Leicester Square, the TKTS booth offers half-price and heavily discounted theatre tickets for a range of acclaimed shows in the area. The majority of tickets it sells are for the same day, but sometimes you can grab tickets up to a week in advance. If you're going on the day (which most do), you will want to be reasonably flexible about what you want to see. Often, which shows they stock and which tickets have the best discounts depends on which shows have unsold seats that day or that week. So don’t go there expecting to get tickets to one show – go with an open mind and give whatever they’ve got a try! It’s the West End, so while some may not be your first choice, most shows will be high quality and worth seeing.
Enter a ticket lottery
To make their shows more accessible, lots of theatres have started running ticket lotteries. You can enter the lotteries online (or sometimes just in person at the theatres) to be in with a chance of winning a low price ticket to that day or that week's shows. For example, the Book of Mormon has a lottery where you can win a £20 ticket two and a half hours before each performance. They also run lotteries you can enter on Twitter. Having received criticism for its exorbitant ticket prices, Hamilton now runs a daily lottery for £10 tickets, which closes at 2 pm each day for tickets to the following day's performance. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has a Friday Forty lottery, where you can enter to win tickets for £40 (£20 for each part of the show) for performances the following week.
Grab a last-minute discount
Theatres don't want empty seats, so many significantly discount their tickets if you buy at the last minute so they can sell any remaining tickets or returned tickets. LastMinute.com is famous for this service, but many theatres now do it at their box offices, too. To do this in person, you may have to queue up at a couple of different theatres to find those with tickets to spare. Still, it's well worth the effort if you manage to bag a bargain for a big show.
Join a cheap or free ticket scheme
Several secretive organisations and memberships offer extremely cheap, last-minute tickets to shows if they're not selling well for a particular performance to fill up the venue. They generally require you to be discreet about where you got your ticket, and some ask you to rate the show after you've seen it. But it's well worth it for the prices. Most of them aren't free but will offer tickets to shows for as little as £1. Again, you can't be too picky with these services, but they might give you a chance to see an incredible show you hadn't considered. Or you might just get lucky and get a cheap ticket to something you've been dying to see. Central Tickets offers tickets from £4 to £5 to a range of shows in London. ShowFilmFirst is similar but offers both theatre and cinema screenings, usually for an admin fee of £2.50. Play by Play charges a service fee of between £1 and £3 to grab a last-minute ticket. Audience Club has a £5 membership fee (which goes to Age UK, their sponsored charity) and then charge around £3 per ticket. It also rewards members who see lots of their shows, offering up more popular shows the more you see.