Each day at around 11am, tourists begin to congregate at a kiosk on the southern side of Leicester Square. There is a tangible sense of anticipation along the slowly forming queue. The half-price ticket booth sells discounted seats for many of the West End's musicals, shows and plays. By 11.30 the queue is four-deep, even though the booth will not open its shutters until noon. The queue divides broadly into two classes: the young (tanned, tattooed, noisy) and the over-50s (calm, weathered, greying). But what they all have in common, is a voracious appetite for theatre: some of those waiting have managed to pack in five or six plays in one week; all of them put taking in a show near the top of their must-do lists while in London.
While some fumble to unfold oversized maps of London attractions and talk quietly among themselves, others studiously examine London listings magazines. Many are here from the United States for a holiday of two weeks or less; preferring the quick-fix of the city to the apathy of a beach closer to home. One young British businessman in a dark suit sticks out from the crowd as sorely as the proverbial thumb. He says that he is here for "real" theatre: the others, unconsciously, provide it.
Katya Keil (21) and Stefan Keil (25)
Katya is studying in London for five months: Stefan is visiting from their home town in Germany. "We want to see Phantom of the Opera," says Katya. "I've read a book on it. We want to see a musical just because we're in London. But I like best wandering in Covent Garden, people-watching."
Phil Marrandette (32) and Barbara Cochrane (40)
Barbara is in London for ten days with her boyfriend Phil. They live in Boston. "We're going to go and see Rent, and if we can't get that, we'll see Phantom. I was going to try and see Rent in the States, but there's more time when you're on vacation."
Christina Brooks (27)
Christina has come into town by train from Hertfordshire on a day off from work. She is hoping to be able to get a ticket for Art - "I am hoping it's still on, it's got Frank Skinner in it," she says - or failing that, she would also be quite happy to see Rent.
Mirko Ludwig (22), Rene Moersheim (27), Britt Oehme (22) and Inga Tholen (24)
Mirko, Inga, Britt and Rene are from Berlin and Aachen, Germany. It's the last night of their holiday here, and they aren't too bothered about what they see. "Whichever show is available," says Rene. "Phantom of the Opera or Starlight Express maybe."
Natalie Noel (21)
Natalie is from Brittany, France. She has come to London for the weekend and spent the morning wandering around Docklands. She's bought Time Out, but she and her companions haven't yet decided what to see. "My friends want to see a musical but I've already seen Cats and Phantom."
Lesley Ferris (51), Martina Mai (10) and Phoebe Ferris (15)
Lesley, from Columbus, Ohio, is here with her daughter and her daughter's friend from Italy. Ms Ferris, who has lived in London and gave birth to Phoebe here, is queueing for tickets to Beauty and the Beast. The trip is "to indulge Martina". In the last month alone, Lesley has queued here six times.
Jill Trowbridge (30) and Debbie Eastwood (49)
Jill, from Columbus, Ohio, and Debbie from Phoenix, Arizona, met two years ago at work. They are in London for a week and tonight they hope to see Rent, although Jill's already seen it. "Last year I got cheap seats up in the balcony, so I want to get a bit closer as it was fantastic and energising."
John Chaney and Anne Chaney (both in their fifties)
John and Anne are here from Florida for a week's holiday. They're aiming to get tickets or Hay Fever, or maybe Whistle Down The Wind. Says Anne: "We like musicals and concerts, we don't normally go in for serious drama." John says: "That goes for me too."
Emma Barnsley (19) and her sister Caroline (18)
Emma has come from Lytham, near Blackpool, with her family to receive her Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award. They're still arguing whether to see West Side Story or Starlight Express. "We've been to musicals quite a few times," says Emma. "Phantom was my favourite. It was so dramatic."
Phil Owen (34)
Phil is a chartered surveyor who works nearby and goes to the theatre in London about once every two months. The last play he saw was Art. Today, he's trying to get tickets for David Hare's Plenty, starring Cate Blanchett. "It's the last week of the play, so that's why I'm here," he says. n