Why are London theatre tickets so expensive?

Updated: Jul 25


Opulent theatre lit up in gold with audience facing the stage and giving a standing ovation
You would think theatre seats are made of gold

London residents and tourists alike have been asking this question for decades. In 2013, long before the current cost of living crisis, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis in fact, The Guardian newspaper was already clamouring about the rising prices of theatre entertainment.


This post addresses why London theatre tickets are so expensive. Specifically,

  1. How expensive are West End tickets?

  2. Are West End ticket prices rising?

  3. What causes the high prices of theatre tickets in London?

  4. Which Off West End theatres have cheap theatre tickets?

  5. But is the West End really that expensive? Theatre Bee does not think so.

  6. Is West End theatre affordable to those on a budget?

 

How expensive are West End tickets?


The priciest West End theatre ticket at the moment is Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club, playing at the Playhouse Theatre. It costs around £304 per person, according to The Stage's 2022 survey of West End ticket prices, but dynamic pricing means that prices can fluctuate drastically about this value based on demand and supply. In fact, the bee has seen prices for the same slip seats at this theatre cost £150 per person on one day, and £300 on another day a month later.


Timeout magazine called out the revival of Mike Bartlett's 'Cock' for charging as much as £460 for the best seats in May 2022. Timeout's theatre critic Andrzej Lukowski writes in his scathing article, "£460 in 2022 is not something we need to tolerate or encourage."


He adds a word of caution for those who have £460 of cash just lying around to be wasted. "Even if you can somehow afford it, don’t pay £460 for any theatre ticket – it’ll just encourage them."


So if you're like

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then you have been warned.

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Are West End ticket prices rising?


The short answer is: not necessarily.

Top priced seats are expensive, yes.


Not only are they expensive, but are also getting more expensive with time, according to this article by The Stage (paywall). Top priced seats across West End theatres in summer 2022 were about 20 percent more expensive than their pre-pandemic levels in 2019.


But before you throw up your hands and conclude that the price rise is inexorable, keep in mind that the 20 percent price rise is for the most expensive seat at participating theatres. Look at the same trend for the least expensive seats and you will find they have risen only about 3 percent since 2019, and that is lower than the rate of inflation over this period, so effectively these tickets have become cheaper over time.


In sum, theatre has become cheaper for frugal, budget conscious theatre-goers like the bee, but it has become more expensive for those who look for great seats or want a premium experience.


That's the trend with respect to the absolute best and absolute worst seats. As for the mid-range seats, on average, West End tickets cost around £40-60 per person in 2022. This is the bee's own estimate based on countless hours of scanning theatre booking sites and endlessly debating over which seat to pick.


Official data indicate that average prices were in the ballpark of £53 in 2019, an increase of about 5 percent since 2018, according to data collected by the Society of London Theatre. Unfortunately, they do not report this data for post-pandemic years (yet).

 

What causes the high prices of theatre tickets in London?

West End theatre tickets are expensive because of the dynamics of the market.


The West End is a theatre district in the heart of City of Westminster in London, where real estate is crazy expensive. It is one of the busiest tourist destinations in the world and has more than 50 theatres and entertainment venues.


Further, London is home to some of the most iconic plays and musicals in the world.


This cultural melting pot of a city offers such a diverse and befuddling variety of theatre productions at an equally befuddling range of prices, that when the bee first moved to London and started looking at show listings, it got positively overwhelmed by the sheer number, variety and price points of the shows on offer.


West End productions are usually musicals or plays that have been running for many, many years and have a lot of fans who want to see them again and again, or tourists who don't mind paying a high price one-time to make the most of their trip. Not to mention that London has no deficit of super wealthy folks who may not be particularly perturbed at having to shell out a triple digit number of pounds for an evening out.



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There are only so many seats in a theatre, many of which are quite old and are not amenable to retrofitting or expansion to increase capacity, and the demand from people to watch these theatres’ productions is so high that the price of tickets can be prohibitive for those who want to stick to a limited budget.


Prices are driven by supply side factors also, of course.


The pandemic had also forced some theatres to rip out seats and reduce the number of people sitting in for each show so that social distancing could be enforced, so theatres have had to increase prices to cover their costs.


Interestingly, the bee often notices that the same show, same row, same seat number could have dramatically different prices on different booking sites. Third party ticket retailers like TodayTix and Encore Tickets (both legit online retailers, in case you wanted to know) often run discounts, for example, which can cause the price of any given seat to be only a fraction of what you might pay if you booked through the show's official website or the theatre venue's official booking page.


But if you don't really know where to look, you are most likely to go straight to the show or theatre venue's official site and book from there.


These sites are less likely to run discounts, sales or offers than third party ticket sites. Not only that, dynamic pricing allows ticket prices to vary based on demand. If a show is close to selling out, the last few seats can rise in price dramatically. That is how tickets to 'Cock' hit a record £460 in May 2022. That might lead many people to conclude that theatre is very expensive to watch in London.


On the other hand, if a show is not doing well, the theatre might just give out free seats to seat-filling agencies and ask them to put bums on seats. As an ardent, devoted and reliable seat-filler, the bee has been to tens of shows every year for as little as £4 per seat.


So to really think about whether theatre is expensive, one must look at the data in perspective.


If you want a last minute ticket to a sell-out show in the posh West End, and don't have the time or patience or energy to hunt for discounts or search multiple ticket sellers for the best rate, then yes, the theatre is going to be an expensive affair.

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But if you, like the bee, cannot or don't want to spend hundreds of pounds a month on the theatre, there are ways to be a frugal but regular theatre-goer. Don't bee-lieve? Look at Theatre Bee's savings tracker in which the bee has painstakingly record what it paid for every theatre seat it ever bought. You will see that the price it paid is almost always just a fraction of the full price or face value of the ticket. This goes to show just how cheap theatre can be if you want it to be.

 

Which Off West End theatres have cheap theatre tickets?


The West End is the most popular area of London where you can see the best of the world’s plays and musical shows, but there are also other theatres in the city that can offer a great experience at a fraction of the price, and many of them carry just as much, perhaps even more, artistic prestige than the commercial West End theatres.


For example, there are a number of theatres near Southbank on the bank of the river Thames. The Old Vic, The Young Vic, Bridge Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe and the National Theatre all have a reputation for producing critically acclaimed productions.


Other theatres spread across central London include Royal Court Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Almeida Theatre, Park Theatre, Donmar Warehouse and Southwark Playhouse. These theatres are not commercial, large, fancy West End venues, but at the same time they are not fringe venues either as they have developed quite a reputation over the years for producing plays that have gone on to become audience and critic favourites.


And then there's the fringe - pub theatres for example that can seat maybe 50 people at time but still manage to showcase some of the absolute gems of theatre, and who knows, a play you're watching at a run-down pub theatre might go on to become a West End staple in the years to come! Hen and Chickens Theatre, The Drayton Arms Theatre, The Old Red Lion and Pleasance Theatre are some of the bee's favourites.

 

But is the West End really that expensive? Theatre Bee does not think so.


West End competes with subsidised and charity theatres


West End commercial theatres do have to compete with a number of both West End and Off West End non-commercial theatres - subsidised theatres and even charity theatres - that offer tickets for very reasonable, competitive prices. That forces the commercial West End shows to have at least one band of seats in a comparable price range.


Moreover, the competition among West End shows with one another for audience members is quite high, with over 50 theatre wooing paying audience members to come and watch and their shows.


Further, there is no deficit of theatre discounts, sales and offers in London, unlike in NYC. Case in point: open your TodayTix app and select NYC. No discount event. An odd theatre or show here and there has a sale, but there is sale event as such that shows can choose to participate in. Now, select London. Summer theatre sale running with tickets starting at just £15 as of the current writing.

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On the TodayTix site, the bee saw additionally that there is an Off West End sale running with stalls seat available for as little as £15 (the bee may go watch The Canterbury Ghost at the Southwark Playhouse in October 2022 from a stalls seat for this price).


Besides, a number of shows have lotteries and rush tickets so if you have the time and patience, you can try those repeatedly until you win. The bee has won enough lotteries (Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella, Cabaret, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) and watched enough shows from the stalls with £25 rush seats (Come From Away, The Glass Menagerie, The Book of Mormon, Straight Line Crazy, and so many more) to know that Theatre does not need to burn a deep hole in your pocket.


If you do a bit of homework, you can access the theatre for cheap. And you can get a little bit of your cash back for each theatre you visit using Seatplan - upload your photos of the view from your seat and earn rewards!


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And, of course, you have Theatre Bee, the site you’re on right now, which is full of suggestions to get theatre tickets cheap and avoid overpaying! So London, really, is not that expensive if you’re a Theatre Bee fan. For inspiration or proof that there are really big buck savings to be had when you’re booking yourself a visit to the theatre, check out the bee’s savings tracker (and download one for yourself if you like).


And if you thought the West End was expensive, you should know that Broadway costs double. As the bee browses Broadway and Off Broadway shows to catch in NYC when it buzzes over there later this summer, it is appalled. $75 for a rear mezzanine seat to Chicago? Yikes. The bee loves the West End.

 

Is West End theatre affordable to those on a budget?


Why, yes! Did you think you can't watch Cabaret unless you shell out £300 pp? We have talked about the most expensive seats at Cabaret the musical. You can get cheaper seats (without as spectacular a view, obviously), for £50 onwards, as of this writing.


If you're feeling lucky, you can enter the daily ticket lottery for Cabaret on TodayTix and if you win, you can grab two tickets to the best seats in the house for just £25 pp! Here are links to the bee's guide on the lottery for Cabaret, and theatre lotteries in general.

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To Kill A Mockingbird has day seats for £15 pp on TodayTix, and the bee got to watch the show from the first row! Not a great seat as the stage is a little high, but far better than sitting in the gods, which is what the bee did the previous time it went to this show for twice the price. The bee doesn't regret either visit though; To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the bee's absolute favourite pieces of theatre. Check out a review here.


Keep tabs on the bee's Theatre Savings Blog where the bee curates all you need to know for saving money on your theatre visits.


It's nice to be curious about what theatres and production houses charge for their show, and to marvel at what they can get away with, but don't let curiosity descend into despair. Theatre Bee is here for you. Shoot the bee a message or leave a comment about a show you want to watch but just can't afford, and the bee will give you tips.


Or run a few quick checks before you hit that 'pay' button and make sure you're not overpaying for your visit to the theatre.




Thank you for reading. Comments, suggestions and feedback very welcome. Bee happy!


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