"Can I ask you a stupid question?" - a question posed to me countless times throughout my four-and-a-half-year tenure at the Apollo Victoria Theatre - the home of Wicked - in London's West End.
From selling refreshments to solving ticketing issues, I had interactions with tens of thousands of patrons throughout my time at one of London's busiest theatres, and I can honestly say that I only had a handful of truly nonsensical questions posed to me (which, to spare the blushes of those well-meaning patrons, I won't include in this blog).
Other than those outliers, my colleagues and I would get asked a similar set of questions every day - posed by seasoned theatregoers to first-timers alike - all wanting to know how best to navigate their theatregoing experience. It was always heartening to be asked questions by our patrons, especially those who were attending their first show. So if you ever feel wary of asking a question to the theatre staff - don't worry, they've heard it all before!
Using my experience, I thought it might be helpful to answer common questions I was asked while working at a West End theatre in order to help make your next trip to London's theatreland as smooth & enjoyable as possible!
Before you arrive at the theatre
1: What should I wear to the theatre?
Anything you feel comfortable wearing! Jeans and trainers/sneakers are perfectly acceptable, though many theatregoers opt for a smart casual dress code, particularly for evening performances.
Top Tip: In the summer months (June - September), dress to keep yourself cool.
The majority of London theatres are Grade Listed buildings, meaning they are protected by law because of their historical/architectural importance ... meaning that theatre owners are legally prohibited from installing air-conditioning ...
No A.C. + 100s of audience members + theatre lighting = a very warm auditorium
2: When should I arrive at the theatre?
You should aim to arrive at the theatre at least 30 minutes before the performance is due to begin.
This will give you enough time to go through security, find your seats and grab a drink before the show begins.
Top Tip: Some shows - like Cabaret - provide audiences with a specific time to arrive at the theatre. Be sure to check your email confirmation for details.
3: What happens if I can't attend a London theatre show that I've booked tickets for?
Let's start with the bad news ... unless your show is cancelled or there are extreme extenuating circumstances, you will not get a refund on your tickets if you can't use them.
It's typically okay for you to pass your tickets on to a friend who is able to go in your place, but please check with your ticket vendor if the attendee's name needs to match the name on the tickets.
It's also perfectly legal to sell your tickets, but you cannot sell them for any more than the face value of your tickets (i.e. the price of your ticket minus any booking fees you may have paid)
The best option is typically to exchange your booking for another time.
Top Tips: If you pursue an exchange, it's important to:
- Contact the company you purchased your tickets from
If you bought a Samsung TV from Amazon, Samsung wouldn't be able to give you a refund if the TV was faulty, but Amazon would. The same logic applies to theatre tickets. The theatre's box office team or another vendor won't be able to help you if you didn't purchase your tickets with them directly. Relevant contact details for your ticket vendor are usually located at the bottom of your confirmation email
- Request an exchange ASAP, before the day you're meant to see the show
Vendors can usually action an exchange if you contact them at least 48 hours before the performance is due to begin. If you contact them on the day of the show, they may not be able to help
- Have your order confirmation number on hand
This will typically be the first piece of information a vendor asks for
- Ensure the person contacting the vendor is the cardholder for the booking
The vendor will typically refuse to talk to anyone else about the order
- Know you cannot exchange your booking for a different play/musical
Vendors can only change the date and/or time of your booking
4: Can I bring a suitcase/luggage/a stroller to a London theatre?
Every theatre has a different policy, so check the theatre's website or ask the Front of House team before you attend the show.
However, due to limited space & safety concerns, most London theatres do not allow large items to be left in their cloakrooms or taken inside their auditoriums.
5: How can I get good value tickets for London theatre shows?
In the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning: "let me count the ways"!
The ticket booths in and around Leicester Square can offer good discounts, but please check they are accredited members of S.T.A.R. before you buy tickets from them!
6: I have a disability, what tickets should I book for London theatre shows?
It's vitally important for patrons with any type of disability to book tickets via the theatre's designated access booking system.
There will typically be a telephone number and/or email address on the show & venue's websites to book access tickets.
It's important to book your tickets this way because:
- The staff will be able to reserve the best seats to mitigate any issues. Remember that all London theatres are built differently, so - for example - Stalls seats may be accessible in some venues & not others
- They will also be able to organise assistance you may need (e.g. operate step-free access lifts, set up hearing loops, provide a sensory cool-down area etc.)
- In the event of an evacuation, they will have a record of where you are sitting in order to get you out of the theatre safely
Also, you (and possibly a companion) will typically qualify for discounted tickets!
At the theatre
7: Can I take videos/photos/audio recordings at the theatre?
Recording a show in any way is a HUGE no-no!
Not only is it unlawful, but it is very distracting for the actors and your fellow audience members.
There are a very small number of shows - like SIX - that allow people to record the bows at the very end of the show, but please ask the Front of House team if this is permissible at the show you're attending before whipping your phone out!
Taking a photo of yourself before or after the show is typically fine, however.
8: Can I get a Playbill at a West End theatre show?
West End theatres do not provide free Playbills (Playbills are free booklets handed out at every Broadway show that list information about the actors & creative team).
The UK equivalent of a Playbill is a programme, and you can purchase these at the theatre for around £5 - £10 each.
Some off-West End theatres, like the National Theatre, offer free programmes, but they are the exception.
9: Can I buy food and drink at London theatres?
Yes! West End theatres typically have several bars that will offer drinks & light snacks such as nuts, crisps, chocolates, and, of course, ice cream at the interval/intermission!
Be mindful that the bars will close 5 minutes before the show is due to begin and will remain closed while the show is on and after the interval/intermission.
A handful of theatres, like Theatre Royal Drury Lane - the home of Frozen the Musical - also have on-site cafés and restaurants!
10: What happens if I arrive late at the theatre?
Latecomer policies vary from show to show, but typically, one of two things will happen:
a. You will be held outside the auditorium until a suitable break in the show
For example, at Wicked, latecomers have to watch the first 25 minutes of the show on a TV in the foyer before being escorted to their seats.
b. You will be refused entry
Not as common as the first option, but is the policy for some plays (not very typical for musicals) or shows with one act (i.e. shows that don't have an interval/intermission).
Check your confirmation email as it will often say if there is no late seating for that performance. And if you are going to be late to the theatre, get to the venue as soon as you can and speak to a member of the Front of House team as soon as you arrive.