THEATRE / A seat worth fighting for: Georgina Brown tries haggling over ticket prices in the West End and discovers that what stands between you and a cheaper seat is a stony face behind the box- office glass

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The Independent Culture
A couple of months ago I bought a Phillips washing machine and, following the timidest of requests, the shop assistant threw in a radio (worth pounds 15). Emboldened by success and feeling a little greedy, I thought I'd stretch my luck and ask for two years' free insurance (worth pounds 25) to be chucked in with it. 'For you darling,' winked the oleaginous salesman. Well, I was done. A friend bought a Hoover washing machine and got two tickets to Florida without even asking. Every day we read the bad news - the deepening recession - and then the good news - bargains, bargains, bargains. Turn over and there's a story about the tough times the West End theatres are having - shows empty, shows closing, theatres dark. Don't, however, expect to get an ice-cream free with every stalls ticket, or a programme with every pair bought in the circle a month in advance. There's the real world and there's the theatre.

As a small concession to economic reality the SWET (Society of West End Theatre) ticket booth in Leicester Square sells tickets for unsold-out shows at half price ( pounds 1.35 ticket charge, Mon-Sat 2.30-6.30pm and noon on matinee days), but you have to traipse over there and the queue is often long and cold and there is no guarantee you'll get what you want, or even your second choice, at the end of it. Most theatres, in the subsidised and commercial sectors, offer concessions for OAPs and students - the best seats available for pounds 10 or less; some offer midweek matinee standby to senior citizens - but try (as I did) loudly extolling the miracles of HRT to the old dears behind you, and then asking for a concession for a poorly attended Thursday matinee for An Ideal Husband at the Globe. It doesn't wash.

A box-officer's job is not an enviable one. Sedentary, solitary, repetitive, it may occasionally be enlivened by a free ticket or two and a bit of star-spotting at close quarters, but that's about it. Prolonged slack periods are lousy preparation for an hour of frantic bustle before curtain up. Perhaps, then, it's not surprising that charm is not a box-officer's most striking characteristic. Even so, Shaftesbury Avenue boasts a particularly flinty breed. Having been dismissed as a crank at the Globe, I ventured next door to the Apollo, beamed at the man behind the window and haggled for a couple of pounds to be knocked off top-price tickets ( pounds 21) for Our Song - Keith Waterhouse's comedy with Peter O'Toole as a raddled (whatever else?) advertising director. 'We don't need to discount seats,' the man said, his expression of disdain verging on disbelief, 'Do you sell out every night?' 'No.' 'So, can't you use your own discretion to shift a few last seats?' 'No.' 'What if I was to buy 20 top-price tickets, would you knock off a couple of quid then?' 'Group sales start at 16. Here's the number.'

Undeterred, I strode on into to the Lyric where the two-hour jazz musical Five Guys Named Moe is in its third year and there are two box-officers (both apparently with time on their hands). The factual element of the conversation was pretty much a repeat performance of the one at the Globe, though there was proof in his withering tone that it's worth putting on a performance even for an audience of one colleague. 'Balcony seats are pounds 3.' 'Can you see?' 'Yes.' Precisely what I might spy from this eyrie, I dared not ask. 'What if I brought 16 friends?' 'Group booking on this number,' he added, now on autopilot, and pushed a leaflet through the hole.

A little punctured, I wandered up Rupert Street to the tiny ticket-booth which claimed to have seats for the hottest, permanently-sold-out shows in town. They weren't exactly giving them away: you could buy a seat for Phantom of the Opera for pounds 35 (for a ticket originally priced pounds 10- 15); or Miss Saigon pounds 20 (a pounds 10 ticket) and for Les Mis pounds 15 ( pounds 7.50 ticket). It was quiet this morning, but according to the saleswoman, people are still buying; there was no point coming back half an hour before a show and expecting a better price because she was confident she would have nothing left. She didn't let on that you could get tickets at face-value for that evening's performance of Les Mis if you walked along to the Palace.

At Wyndhams in Charing Cross Road, where an adaptation of Graham Greene's morality tale Travels With My Aunt is doing brisk business, a cheerful, obliging box-officer broke the mould. Could I, I wondered, buy a balcony seat and slip surreptitiously into the circle? 'The ushers probably won't let you do that,' he said with breezy efficiency. But there's no need, he continued. Tonight's show was not sold out, so he had decided to close the balcony. For the price of a balcony seat ( pounds 7.50) he would happily move me down to the royal circle or stalls. If I wanted more expensive tickets then, since it was a Thursday (he couldn't do it on a Friday or Saturday because it was too full), I could buy pounds 14.50 seats and sit in the pounds 18.50 stalls. 'Just ask. I'll see what I can do.' No such luck at the Albery where Hayfever isn't sold out. 'You get what you pay for,' snapped the mouth at the kiosk.

The sentry to The Witches (Roald Dahl brewed by David Wood) at the Duke of York's was amused by the cheek of the request, though he suggested I bought a balcony seat for pounds 6.50. 'Ah ha,' I said, cannier now, 'So are you moving everyone down?'. 'I can't say.' 'Be a sport.' 'No.' 'Would you ever volunteer that information to save someone spending twice as much as they need to?' 'No.'

At the New Theatre where there were tickets at all prices for Cats, I got straight to the point - 'Any bargains?' - and the box-officer got the giggles. 'I don't suppose anyone will notice,' she said when I asked if I would get away with buying a pounds 10.50 seat and sneak into a vacant pounds 28 stall. 'What about selling me the top- price stalls for pounds 25.' 'You'll have to ask the manager.' 'How should I approach him?' More giggles. 'You could try asking for the pounds 28 ones and then get your money out and say you haven't got enough.' At the Shaftesbury, where Kiss of the Spider Woman is in residence, the box-officer was sterner. 'Our ushers are trained not to let you move.' Negotiation is out of the question at any price and under no circumstances will you be moved from the balcony to the stalls, even if the stalls are empty. If you take a group (minimum 15), though, you will hear a different tune: for a Wednesday matinee you can have the best seats for pounds 15.

When you start talking groups of 15 or more the numbers come tumbling down. An Ideal Husband: pounds 20 for pounds 10 (Tues mat); Joseph pounds 27.50 seats for pounds 22.50 (Mon- Thurs eves and Wed mats); Miss Saigon (Mon-Thurs eve) pounds 28 for pounds 17.50; Cats pounds 28 for pounds 10.50 (Tues mat); if you've a party of 40 you can sit in the pounds 28 stalls at Starlight Express for pounds 9; for pounds 5.50, you can have pounds 18.50 seats for Don't Dress for Dinner (though some might say that's still pounds 5.50 too much).

The pity is that theatre managements don't extend this sort of discount to individuals. SWET reports that in 1991 (the last year for which figures are available) attendances were almost half a million down on 1990 (a total of 10,905,395 tickets were sold, that is 66 per cent of capacity).

Admittedly, some producers are using a new service run by Gillian Guy Assocs: she sells 'pre-pairs' (two-for-the-price-of-one on previews and the first few weeks) and 'show-pairs' (two-fors for shows needing a bit of a prop). Vouchers are distributed in 'public places' outside the West End 'to bring in new theatre-goers,' says Gillian Guy. But her special offers apply to top-price tickets only. Surely it's time for theatres to look at the techniques adopted by everyone else trying to persuade bargain-hunting consumers to part with their money. To begin with, they might copy subsidised theatres like the Royal Court or the RSC: the Court sells all tickets on Monday nights for pounds 5 and the RSC holds armchair proms (for one week every year, 500 seats are available at pounds 6).

Or, more dramatically, they could let rip like every shop in nearby Oxford Street and have January and Summer Sales, flogging everything at half price. After all, it doesn't take long to lose the habit of going to the theatre, and too many have already lost it. Unless producers take the lead from retailers, more and more people will return from their free holidays in Florida to stay in and watch their new washing machines spinning round and round.

HOW TO GET MORE THAN YOU PAID FOR

If possible, go in person to the box office. It is almost impossible to haggle successfully on the telephone.

Find out exactly what seats are available so that you know the parameters of your negotiation and whether you might be able to get better seats than you pay for.

If the theatre does not appear to be full, establish whether the balcony or upper circle is to be closed and ticket-holders moved down into more expensive seats. If that is the case, buy the cheapest seat possible.

Be bold, be patient. Ask an usher if you can move into an empty seat in the stalls after the interval. Many are happy to turn a blind eye.

(Photograph omitted)

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