The British equivalent of Black Friday: queuing for theatre day seats

22 Feb

I have a somewhat embarrassing confession — I’ve been in London over a year now and I have yet to see a West End show. That’s embarrassing to me because I really like theatre — I saw “Wicked” twice in Chicago and had season tickets to Broadway in Cincinnati. But sometimes living in London compared to just visiting for a week is a problem — you start putting things on the “Things To Do Eventually” list and then you never actually do them. At least not for awhile. When my Anglophile friend from Chicago visited me in September she told me about the play “One Man, Two Guvnors” starring James Corden. She had also just gotten me into the show “Gavin and Stacey,” created by and starring James Corden. The play got rave reviews but I promptly forgot about it. Until this week, when Stephen left on a business trip and I decided I should do more than sit around and watch TV and bury myself in work. I live in London and it’s high time I start experiencing it. So I looked up the play only to find Corden is leaving the role on Feb. 25 and every show is completely sold out. But there was a glimmer of hope — this crazy phenomenon known as Day Seats, in which theatres sell off the front row and cancelled tickets to a show the morning of. It would be my only chance of seeing my favorite British actor on the stage (yes, apparently I have a favorite (favourite?) British actor now), so I decided to go for it. Here’s the story in unnecessarily detailed and long narrative form.

This theatre bug hit me last week, but after careful consideration of my work schedule and the play schedule, I decided Wednesday would be the day to go. There are two performances on Wednesdays, so I would double my chance of getting tickets. All week I anxiously anticipated Wednesday. I obsessively checked the website, read reviews, I even picked up the phone to call the box office to ask them how many day seats they have and what time people start to queue, but the box office doesn’t have a phone number. Plus, what fun would waking up early to queue be if I had all that information?

The big day finally arrived this morning and it felt like Black Friday. I was excited, but tired and found myself asking if I really wanted to do this — it would be so easy to go back to sleep and work and watch TV all day like any other day. But I was determined to do this — for the experience and the blog post that would surely come out of it. So at 8:40 a.m. I left my flat, five minutes earlier than expected, and earlier than I believe I’ve ever walked down the High Street. (I know, I know, 8:40 is only early to someone who works from home on her own schedule). I passed dozens of kids scootering to school wearing uniforms reminiscent of Madeline, with their matching scarves, coats and hats. I even passed my old buddy Guinness Guy, so named because he drunkedly wanders the neighborhood, often carrying a can of Guinness, and talks to anyone who passes by him, often with a funny comment about the weather (“It’s a balmy 5 today, I’m gonna go sunbathing!”) or a catcall. I have no idea where he lives or why he wanders the neighborhood drinking only Guinness, but that’s beside the point. I got on the Tube and got off at Charring Cross station, headed towards the Adelphi Theatre. I couldn’t stop the questions from popping up in my head — “What if there are no more tickets? What if ‘completely sold out’ means ‘completely sold out?’ What if there’s a line around the block, should I still wait? Should I try to get tickets to another show? Will I even be able to find the theatre?”

That last one was easy to answer — I stepped out of the Tube station, looked down the street, and saw my buddy James Corden on a giant banner above the theatre. There was also a queue out front. At least the promise of tickets was still alive. I speedwalked from the station, maneuvering around every pedestrian as if they were a potential threat to my spot in line. Finally I had my spot in the queue, about 25 people back.

It was hard to capture the queue in a photo

It was 9:10 and the box office opened at 10 a.m. As I stood there contemplating how I was going to spend the next 50 minutes standing there in the cold, Crazy Guy approached.

“The queue doesn’t seem too bad,” he said with a slurred incomprehensible English accent. “I spoke with the girl at the front of the queue — she’s been here since 4 a.m.!” he nearly shouted.

“Wow!” I said, and the guy in front of me agreed. I asked them if they knew how many tickets were available. They didn’t.

I got out my iTouch and attempted to go through my Chinese flashcards, but Crazy Guy did not take the hint. He kept on talking. I understood about every fifth word he said, so I gave him the old smile and nod, coupled with the occasional “Really?” and “Wow.” He was reading a newspaper and talking about Adele. The queue starting filling in behind me and Crazy Guy starting chatting up the girl behind him. He asked her if she would hold his place while he ran to the cash machine because he didn’t have any money. She said that was fine. The group of women behind her laughed after he left. “He’s a smart guy — got his spot in the queue first, then goes to get the money!” I couldn’t help but wonder how “Can you hold my spot, I forgot to bring money” would fly on Black Friday at Wal-Mart. I think he would have been punched. He was gone for at least 20 minutes. I was starting to think he had stopped for a coffee, knowing full well his spot was safe. Maybe he wasn’t so crazy after all.

I overheard the woman behind me say they usually have 20 tickets per performance and this was her third time trying. “Oh wait, is it 20 per performance or 20 total between the two? I can’t remember. I just know I got here at 10 a.m. last time and I was way too late,” she said. I was getting nervous — there’s a big difference between 20 and 40 tickets, especially when there’s over 20 people queued in front of you and each person can buy 2 tickets. Maybe 8:40 wasn’t early enough after all.

Crazy Guy returned and told the girl behind me the entire story about how he lost his bank card. I heard her giving the same polite but please-stop-talking-to-me one-word answers I had.

At 10 a.m. on the dot they rose the gate of the theatre and we filed into the heated lobby. Crazy Guy was rambling on to no one in particular about all the shows he’s seen and what he was thinking about seeing tonight if he didn’t get a ticket. “I hear if you sit in the front three rows of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ you need an umbrella!” he said, laughing to himself. I have to give him credit — there was definitely something not right with the guy, but at least he spends all his time at the theatre.

The queue was moving impossibly slow, as each person had to show ID and fill out a detailed form. To prevent resale they hold the tickets until showtime when you must present your ID and receipt. I saw 4 a.m. Girl leave, ticket and pillow in hand. I wonder if this sign on the casino next door was directed at people like her:


“I got them! I got front row tickets to the show!” a woman shouted to someone on the phone. The anxiety was building as we collectively watched more and more people and tickets walk out the door. Less left for us. One of the box office guys stood up. “Ladies and gentleman, the evening performance is now sold out.” There was a collective grumble as many people got out of the line, including the man in front of me. I was hoping for a matinee ticket anyway, as I didn’t want to go home at 11 p.m. by myself. I moved up and started chatting to the couple in front of me. This was also their third attempt at getting tickets for this show.
“I think we’re further up than last time,” the wife ensured her husband. We were getting closer — there were only five people ahead of me now.
“I wish they would announce how many tickets are left,” I said. “There are people way back there who are probably wasting their time waiting.” The people in front of me agreed. The lady four people ahead tapped the woman buying her tickets. “Ask them how many are left,” she whispered. I heard the attendant say “3 or 4.” My heart sank. I was so close!
“What should we do if there is only one?” the husband in front of me asked.
“Are you alone?” his wife asked me. “Then it’d be your lucky day!” I smiled.
“Or we could flip for it!” the husband joked.
The lady in front of them approached the window. We were crossing our fingers — no “Sold out” announcement yet.
The couple in front of me were up and I couldn’t help feeling happy that they finally got theirs. I just hoped I could get mine. The husband turned around and looked at me with a smile, “You’re good!” he said. Victory!
It was finally my turn to approach the window. The front row day seats were long gone, but they must have had some cancellations in the upper circle — nosebleed seats, but cheaper than what I was expecting to pay, and most importantly, it was a ticket. I didn’t wait an hour in the cold for nothing. As I was getting out my money I felt a tap on my shoulder — it was the husband giving me a thumbs up as he and his wife left with their receipt. I smiled and gave a thumbs up back. As I left, glorious receipt in hand, I heard Crazy Guy at the window shouting and spelling his name as the woman asked for his ID. I prayed he wouldn’t be seated next to me.

Wow, this post turned out a lot longer than I had anticipated so I won’t go into a detailed review of the show. It was definitely worth the time and money. James Corden was brilliant, even more than expected. It was amazing to see him in action, even if it was from the upper circle. My seat was directly in the center, which was an added bonus. It was an old theatre and the seats were ridiculous close together. As I squeezed my way to my seat, I heard an “Oh, hi!” — it was the couple from the queue, they were seated right next to me. We exchanged pleasantries, agreeing that few people probably got tickets after us, then there was that awkward silence that happens when you have nothing else in common besides standing in the same queue for the same show and someone (*cough* me) is shy and bad at keeping conversations going.

So my first London theatre-going experience was a success. I finally had a real, true London experience, from the Black Friday-esque queue for tickets, to seeing a genuine British play with genuine British humour (OK, I’ll admit I didn’t get some of the cultural references and for the first minute of the play I feared it was going to be like this:

But the accents eventually grew on me, although I had to put a lot of effort into listening.

Now that I know about day tickets and matinees, I have no excuse for sitting around watching TV on a slow work day.

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