Going to the theatre, especially a musical in London’s West End is not a cheap night out. One would therefore expect a really special experience from start to finish…
I have been lucky enough to go to three shows in the last 6 months, one with my partner on a weekend in London, the second with my sister, niece and daughter for my niece’s 18th and the third with my daughter and mother to watch my nephew in a new musical.
Along with us were many other tourists to London enjoying a night at the theatre as one of the ‘must dos’ on a trip to London as well as families and friends celebrating special occasions.
Deciding what to see is the first step – one of the big shows like Phantom or Les Miserables? A family musical, perhaps Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Or maybe some nostalgic music from the Kinks in Sunny Afternoon.
It is very hard to find independent summaries of the shows and, whilst Trip Advisor does cover West End shows, it does not do so particularly well.
A tourist with little knowledge of them will naturally gravitate to those they have heard of making it really hard for the smaller shows to break through and allowing the big ones to charge incredibly high prices.
The problems really start though when you come to book.
Type in ‘west end theatre tickets’ to Google or even tickets for a particular show and a whole host of ticket agency sites appear. In the vast majority of cases it is impossible to book directly with the box office without visiting it – pretty tricky for a tourist wanting to plan in advance. But which agency to go with?
No price comparison sites for Theatre tickets and the prices and booking fees vary considerably. Some sites let you pick your actual seat, others you chose from a price range.
I decided to book one show on Lastminute.com. It gave me a range to choose from. There were 5 tiers and, as the second tier down was the same prices as ‘restricted view’ seats on another site I thought I was getting a good deal.
I was therefore very disappointed to arrive to find our seats were in the Upper circle and therefore some of the worst in the house. When I questioned how that could be I was informed that Last Minute did not have access to any of the best seats so their ‘second tier’ which in fact was the vast majority of seats they had access to, was actually about the fourth tier. Yes – complicated, very misleading and not a great start to my niece’s birthday treat.
My bigger point though is that every experience was exactly the same no matter which show I was watching and has been every time I have gone to the theatre in the last 30 years.
You arrive at the theatre all excited, queue up in the tiny atrium to pick up your tickets from a grumpy box office staff member, maybe buy an extremely expensive programme which is mainly ads, queue to buy an over-priced drink and maybe pre-order one for the interval (more on that later).
There is absolutely nothing to start immersing you in the experience of the show which seems such a missed opportunity. Why is Kinks music not being played in the atrium at Sunny Afternoon? Why are the staff not dressed in period costume at The Go Between? Why does the interior of The Adelphi for Beautiful not feel like a recording company?
The opportunities are huge and if restaurants, shops and race courses can all give you a ‘wow’ welcome then surely a theatre can?
The interval does not get any better – you have to rush from your seat to the toilet to save having to spend the whole interval queueing and then try and find your drink from the mass that have been left out to go warm and flat since they were poured when the show started. You may even want to queue for a very expensive tub of ice cream from the usherette’s tray!
And then you leave. Sometimes not even through the foyer but directed down some back stairs through a shabby fire exit door onto the street. An abrupt ending to what is normally an amazing show.
I know theatres are limited by their infrastructure but I really wish they would sort out the basics – easy to find summaries and reviews, simple and clear online booking system, friendly, welcoming staff, efficient bar service…
And then let’s have some innovation that really sets them above the rest – an immersive, exciting welcome and farewell would be a start.