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‘It’s licensed touting, essentially’: has sky high ticket pricing turned London theatre into the wild West End?



‘It’s licensed touting, essentially’: has sky high ticket pricing turned London theatre into the wild West End?

‘Theatres are taking the piss,” says 26-year-old aspiring actor and dedicated theatre fan Laurine. “I book tickets anyway, but hate myself for doing it.” Laurine relocated from France to London partly because of the promise of the West End, aiming to see all the shows she could. But she’s feeling increasingly defeated by the battle to find affordable tickets. Recently, she spent weeks entering ticket lotteries to see one of this summer’s biggest shows, Romeo & Juliet starring Tom Holland, after the first batch of tickets sold out in just two hours. “It was so stressful, it was like a part-time job,” she says.

Laurine eventually landed a spot after three weeks of trying, but she hasn’t always been so lucky. She was desperate to see Jonathan Bailey in the 2022 revival of Cock by Mike Bartlett, but when tickets rose to a “ridiculous” £400, she was priced out. And although she did manage to see Matt Smith in An Enemy of the People earlier this year, she was struck by the irony of the situation. “He delivers this monologue where he’s talking about capitalism and elitism and how culture is too expensive, but I could barely see him from the worst seat I’ve ever sat in, which I paid £35 for. I just felt angry.”

I know the feeling. I want theatre to be an essential art form with the power to get people’s hearts beating in sync – a democratic space, not a rarefied, luxurious hobby. But that’s harder when getting affordable tickets to its most talked-about shows involves so much work. When Hamilton made its long-awaited appearance in the West End in 2017, I entered ticket lotteries for weeks before I secured a seat – but it was so far above the stage that the show’s famous choreography was reduced to a distant kaleidoscope of jiggling blobs. And when I wanted to dissect Eddie Redmayne’s performance in Cabaret with my friends, they were priced out by a show whose tickets topped £300.

Matt Smith and Nigel Lindsay in An Enemy of the People at the Duke of York’s theatre earlier this year. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

It’s not just fans who are angry. Theatre’s biggest stars regularly rail against high ticket prices, even though they help pay their salaries. As he prepared to perform his radical one-man Vanya last year, Andrew Scott told the BBC that it’s important that theatre “does not remain an elitist art form… No matter how zeitgeisty or how modern you think your play is, if you are having to spend £150 no person between the age of 16-25 or beyond is going to be able to afford that.” Still, although the production took the novel step of opening with a performance exclusively for under-30s, with all tickets at £10, the cheaper tickets for the rest of the run sold out fast, with the best seats going for £172.50. Likewise, 85-year-old Sir Derek Jacobi spoke out at last year’s Olivier awards, saying that “it was much easier” to see plays at the start of his career, and that theatre was becoming “elitist” when it should be “part of our blood and bones”. Summing up the current mood, a recent Guardian headline complained: “Who can afford the expensive gamble of going to see a play that you might not like?”

In 1809, Covent Garden’s new theatre was hit by three months of audience rioting after its manager John Kemble raised ticket prices to fund the venue’s restoration after a fire. Punters booed, chanted, waved banners and wreaked all round havoc until Kemble capitulated and restored the former prices. Today, a rebellion against rising ticket costs is likely to look rather quieter – more like a creeping absence of the younger, more diverse audiences that theatre’s future depends on.

So is greed killing the West End? Is it becoming a luxury playground that excludes ordinary theatregoers? Are fat-cat producers amassing piles of cash at audiences’ expense?

Quick Guide

How to find cheaper theatre tickets in the UK


Go online first…

There’s a thriving industry in online services competing to mop up unsold tickets at a discounted price. TodayTix is among the best-known, and often offers last-minute “flash sales” for those able to be spontaneous: download the app. The websites SeatPlan and LOVEtheatre work in much the same way; the latter highlights a show of the week – Dominic West in A View from the Bridge is the choice as of this writing. Wait for seasonal downturns in business – January/February for one – when ticket prices often drop, and it’s always worth checking each individual show’s website for ticket offers and availability. Not to be outdone by its Broadway equivalent, Leicester Square has a TKTS booth selling seats at reduced prices, though I’ve never seen it remotely as crowded as its US counterpart, which  has long been an iconic part of New York’s theatreland.

… but also go in person

I’m always astonished – in the best way – at the willingness of most London box offices to sell ticket stock last minute and at prices not necessarily advertised. There’s nothing wrong with presenting yourself with a smile at the ticket window and trying your luck, though results may depend on the show at hand – don’t expect last-minute deals for Tom Holland in Romeo and Juliet, though other shows (the Broadway transfer to the Noël Coward theatre of Slave Play, for one) advertise day seats online, alongside a great-value pay-what-you-can lottery for performances the following week. Seniors and students are often at an advantage, but I’ve known many a theatre to proffer a good seat just before curtain to any and all comers at well below the going rate.

Think smaller

London is blessed with numerous Off and Off-Off West End theatres that are in every way a welcome antidote to the big guns. Tickets for Sarah Power’s Grud at the Hampstead Downstairs can be had for £25, or a tenner if you’re under 30 – less than many a cinema in the same area of north-west London – and prices for American playwright Lucas Hnath’s Red Speedo at the always-inviting Orange Tree theatre in Richmond may increase based on demand but there are nonetheless seats available at £15 and, for those receiving certain benefits, £1: check the theatre website for details. The Latchmere and Finborough are among the pub theatres of choice – the latter maintaining world-class standards for a per-performance audience of 50 – and venues like the Park Theatre and the Turbine in Battersea have contributed to a welcome decentralisation of playgoing across the capital.

Look further afield

London, of course, isn’t the only game in town. Why not catch a show at the Theatre Royal, Bath, or Chichester Festival theatre before it transfers to the West End, at which point ticket costs inevitably rise? The Haymarket’s current A View from the Bridge began in Bath, as did the starry Tamsin Greig-led revival of The Deep Blue Sea, and Chichester is currently hosting the revival of that perennial favourite Oliver!, which arrives on Shaftesbury Avenue just before Christmas. Salisbury, Leeds, and the new Royal Shakespeare Company regime in Stratford-upon-Avon are just a few of the destinations worth a visit, especially at a time when regional theatre is struggling to stay afloat. Matt Wolf

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Unsurprisingly, theatre producers are keen to push back against these negative perceptions. “Greed is not killing the West End,” says Patrick Gracey, chair of the Society of London Theatres (Solt) and producer of hyped recent shows including Opening Night starring Sheridan Smith and Jez Butterworth’s The Hills of California. As we talk, he clicks through spreadsheets charting the fragile balancing acts involved in making theatre pay. “I find the headlines genuinely disappointing,” he says. “The price of a theatre ticket is driven by a combination of cost and demand. The cost of making theatre is rising faster than inflation, but ticket prices are not.”

Gracey points me towards Solt’s figures, based on reporting by its member theatres. They indicate an average West End ticket price of £57.31 – a 5.39% increase on 2022, or -1.65% when adjusted for inflation – some distance from the bank-breaking figures making the headlines. Gracey also points out that people are willing to spend far more on other non-essentials such as meals out, day trips or concert tickets: “The average ticket price for Taylor Swift’s tour is £206, and she will play for more people in a single night than the entire run of Romeo & Juliet,” he says.

However, the picture is less rosy if you look at theatre industry newspaper the Stage’s annual survey of West End prices, which focuses on the most expensive tickets. It found that the average top ticket price for plays rose a whopping 50% in the past year, from £94.45 in 2023 to £141.61 – with celebrity-driven offerings such as Romeo & Juliet leading the charge with its top price of £298.95 (it’s now £345). Look back a decade or so and the rise is still more striking. In 2012, when the Stage began its survey, no single ticket cost more than £100. Just three years later, The Book of Mormon became the first show with a top ticket price that broke the £200 barrier. Yet even that seems like a bargain compared to Cabaret’s array of tickets topping £300.

So what’s changed? It’s self-evident that it’s not just the rising cost of theatre. Instead, it’s a concerted industry shift towards dynamic pricing. This very 21st-century approach is inspired by 18th-century economist Adam Smith’s theory that value is driven by supply and demand. Instead of relying on fixed prices, companies maximise profits by ramping up prices when their products are in short supply.

Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff, and Lindsay Mendez in Merrily We Roll Along on Broadway, seats for which have sold for up to £1,025. Photograph: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

Time Out theatre editor Andrzej Lukowski has watched this shift come into play over his 10 years in the job. “The top prices are only triggered when shows start selling exceptionally well,” he says. “For example, Romeo & Juliet went on sale with a top price of £145 – but once shows begin to sell out there’s a trend for selling the remaining tickets for insane prices [Romeo & Juliet’s top price doubled]. It’s licensed touting, essentially.”

Prices on Broadway have long dwarfed the West End’s excesses – starting with The Producers in 2001, which taught theatre’s real-life moneymen a thing or two by taking the then-unheard of step of offering “premium seats” for $480 apiece. Their trajectory since is more eye-watering still. After Merrily We Roll Along won big at the Tony awards – including best actor gongs for its stars Daniel Radcliffe and Jonathan Groff – ticket prices soared for its final weeks, with a premium seat going for an astonishing $1,299 (£1,025).

Last week, leading agent Mel Kenyon told the Stage that “mirroring the American [pricing] model… is not a healthy model because it means you aren’t growing things from the bottom”, and that the UK talent development “ecosystem is broken”. Indeed, casting established stars to sell high-price tickets is now a classic West End approach. When Sarah Jessica Parker starred in Plaza Suite (with husband Matthew Broderick – top ticket price: £395), sold-out audiences seemed undeterred by what critics largely agreed was a mediocre performance in a dated play. Instead, outcrops of fans sprang up outside stage door longing for a chance encounter.

It’s hard not to assume a connection between inflated prices and theatre’s addiction to casting celebrity names (a stint in 2:22: A Ghost Story has become a form of military service, enlisting names from Cheryl to Stacey Dooley). West End casting directors are famously tight-lipped about what big names can expect to earn, but Gracey argues that “the star salary of an actor is not the driving force behind ticket prices – some may do it for Equity’s pay scale, some may ask a higher fee, but they’re just one piece of the puzzle. Most plays will take more than 60 people a night to make them happen, not counting the creative team and freelance personnel.”

‘A new model for theatre in the West End’: For Black Boys… at Garrick theatre, London, in March, which had lower-than-average prices but still turned a profit. Photograph: Nicky J Sims/Getty Images

While it’s endearing that big Hollywood names are keen to test their skills in front of a live audience (Woody Harrelson and Andy Serkis’s run last December in Ulster American at Hammersmith venue Riverside Studios can only have been motivated by the challenge of a bracingly controversial play rather than cold hard cash), star actors typically opt for a relatively brief sojourn in theatreland before they’re called back to far more lucrative gigs in TV and Hollywood. That means that plays such as Cock have short runs, and high pressure to recoup the substantial initial costs involved in rehearsal and production. “A TV show can be sold and make millions and millions for ever,” Gracey explains, “whereas a play, especially a short-run play with a star actor, has a very limited window in which to recoup its costs and hopefully make a profit.”

Quick Guide

Theatre tickets: the view from New York


If the price of London theatre tickets has you wincing, they’re nothing compared to the stratospheric heights of New York. In part this is owing to the greater unionisation of Broadway compared with the West End. Wages are higher across the board, which in turn means heftier operating costs which inevitably get passed on to the public.

I remember shuddering while at university when it cost a then-unconscionable $100 to see the Broadway transfer in 1981 of the RSC’s legendary production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, a ticket high that was later matched by the 1991 Broadway premiere of Miss Saigon and, in spring 2001, the star wattage of Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane in The Producers. Nowadays, the sky’s the limit on Broadway and even off, and dynamic pricing allows New York impresarios to adjust pricing to suit demand. (London has got in on the same act, as well.)

That explains the astonishing $1,299 it was costing this past week to buy a best seat online for the smash hit revival, starring recent Tony winners Daniel Radcliffe and Jonathan Groff, of Merrily We Roll Along, which closes today – an astonishing reversal of fortune for a Stephen Sondheim musical that first time round in 1981 was a flop. The average cost of a ticket to Eddie Redmayne in Cabaret in New York has been pegged near the $250 mark, and you’ll pay several times that amount for a ringside table close to the action.

Deals of course can be found. The Times Square TKTS booth discounts seats on a sliding scale, and less popular shows often allow rush seats on the door for a fraction of the list price. One advantage New York has over London is the custom of subscription series to various not-for-profit theatres that allow patrons to book a sequence of shows at a discount: members of Lincoln Center Theater, for instance, will pay about half the price of a standard ticket to their prestige autumn opening, which is Robert Downey Jr’s Broadway debut in the Ayad Akhtar play McNeal.

As always, playgoers willing to take a punt on booking early will be ahead of the game should their chosen show become a breakout hit like Merrily, and the cost of tickets starts to soar. And if the given title turns out to be a dud? Hey, that’s showbiz. Matt Wolf

Photograph: Richard Levine/

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Leading producer and theatre owner Nica Burns, whose West End hits include Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and This House, offers a different take on the pricing debate. “If people can afford to pay more, they should,” she says, “because it lets us have more tickets at a lower price.” For her, charging high ticket prices on big shows is just a natural part of the great balancing act involved in producing theatre. “Casting big names means that a producer can make the money that will help them develop something more risky,” she explains on a call from New York, as she takes a breather from catching up on Broadway’s most hyped summer offerings.

And Burns certainly practises what she preaches. Last year, she took a chance on bringing Ryan Calais Cameron’s hit play For Black Boys… to the West End, followed by Tyrell Williams’s Red Pitch this spring. Both had critical success when they premiered in small, subsidised off-West End theatres (New Diorama and Bush theatre respectively). But would these experimental plays centred on young, Black experience pull in West End crowds more used to a diet of bombastic musicals and star vehicles? “It was unique, a new model for theatre in the West End,” she says, explaining that she deliberately kept prices low to help these shows find a demographic that doesn’t typically venture into theatreland.

Her gambit paid off. “It was a completely different audience,” she says cheerfully. “We had a lot of young people coming in on £20 tickets.” And although both shows were designed as a loss leader, they ended up turning a profit. “To get a bit of cream off the top was a delight. Sometimes, as producers we do things because we feel so strongly about the work, and if we get our money back, we have a little jig, and if we get more than our money back, we have a little drink!”

It’s clear that theatre doesn’t have to be price gouge to be profitable. At just 24, Ameena Hamid is the West End’s youngest producer and is passionate about staging work her friends can afford to see. “Theatre hasn’t always felt super accessible to everyone – it’s been seen as elitist – and all this publicity about high ticket prices is just making it worse. There are so many ways to get cheaper tickets, but they’re not really publicised.”

Hamid’s new show Why Am I So Single? is firmly aimed at the kind of younger audiences who might be priced out by the latest West End star vehicle. It’s a new musical from Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, who co-wrote the hit musical Six while they were studying at Cambridge University. The pair’s bubblegum pop hooks are catnip to the new generation of theatre fans that Hamid is targeting using TikTok and Instagram. “We want to be real with people, to show them that theatre isn’t all hoity-toity and expensive – it can be fun and playful and affordable.” Why Am I So Single? has plenty of £20 seats each night, and a top ticket price of £110 – not cheap, but substantially lower than the average top ticket price of £166.98 across London’s commercial theatres. “Theatre has a long way to go, and it’s not doing everything right. But there are some really brilliant initiatives.”

Ameena Hamid’s show Why Am I So Single? at the West End Live festival in Trafalgar Square, London, last month. Photograph: Bonnie Britain/Sopa/Rex/Shutterstock

These include Broadway transplant Slave Play’s scheme offering 30 “pay what you can” tickets for each performance, meaning that audiences could see the show for as little as £1. Although the pandemic was the nail in the coffin for the practice of queueing for affordable day seats at West End theatres, most shows now offer weekly online lotteries for cheaper tickets. And seat-filling agencies such as The Audience Club and Masterclass give members access to shows that aren’t selling well for a nominal fee.

Still, these schemes are complex to navigate, and modest in scope. They lack the sweeping, democratic vision of older projects such as Nicholas Hytner’s much-missed link-up with Travelex: in 2003, its first season sold two-thirds of tickets in the National Theatre’s Olivier main stage for just £10. Or Michael Grandage’s starry 2013 slate of West End shows with 100,000 seats across the season priced at £10. Such bold, inclusive gestures are especially needed right now, as the cost of living rises, younger people are hit with a double whammy of higher rents and higher student debt, and arts education is winnowed from school curriculums.

As an example of where we should be aiming, Hamid points to Solt and UK Theatre’s joint Theatre for Every Child campaign, whose goal is to get all secondary school students to see at least one stage show. “Getting started young is so important,” she says. “I first fell in love with theatre at a panto when I saw one of the ugly sisters’ wigs fall off. I got so excited by the idea that the show would be different every time: it’s affected by the audience that’s in the room with you. We need to show young people that theatre is something that can be exciting and diverse and reflective of their everyday lives.”

London’s subsidised sector is doing just that, with the likes of Bush theatre and the New Diorama producing transferable shows that change perceptions of what theatre can be, at affordable prices. But when it comes to the West End, there’s a danger that price inflation could do terminal damage. As Laurine says: “I mostly go to the theatre alone, because my friends can’t afford to join me.”

Prices of current shows correct at time of publishing

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