5 Things That STILL Surprise Me About The West End.

If you follow me on the jolly ol’ Twitter, then you know I was in the UK last week checking out shows and seeing what’s floating boats on the other side of the pond.

It has been a while since I’ve walked through the West End, and while our sister theater city and us have a lot in common, there are some distinct differences in how we do business that continue to surprise me.

And here are five of them.

1. Half Price “TKTS” Booths Are Everywhere.

There is an official TKTS Booth in Leicester Square, but there are also unofficial half-price booths almost on every block in the heart of the West End (I counted five in one alley). A lot of business is done by the brokers who operate these pop-up-like shops, and in addition to full price tickets, they offer discounts as well. Can you imagine what Times Square would look like if brokers started doing the same thing here? There’s nothing stopping them, actually (and 1-2 have actually tried) . . . except the very high Times Square rent.

2. Want A Program? That’s 5 quid.

There are no free Playbills in Londontown.  You’ve gotta pay for a souvenir book if you want to read actor bios or find out who is General Managing the show you’re seeing (and those books also have advertising).  And get this, the revenue from the sale of these programs doesn’t even go to the show. It goes to the theater!  (I don’t know how this tradition started, but Producers are getting effed.  It’s one thing for bar sales to go to a theater, but program sales?  Scheez.)  I didn’t end up buying any.  Why?  I used my phone and went to the website instead.  Note to London Theater Owners – expect program sales to drop in the next five to ten years.

3.  Nothing is “off” about the West End.

The last show I saw before I hustled back home was the (hilarious) The Play That Goes Wrong at the Duchess Theatre, which has a capacity of 479.

Yep, that’s right, this 2015 Olivier Award winner for Best New Comedy that is one of the toasts of the West End . . . would be an Off Broadway show if it was in the same sized theater in NYC.  And I guarantee you, it wouldn’t have near the notoriety that it does in London.  By creating a line in the NYC theater market between Broadway and Off, we’re asking consumers to choose.  And in the last ten years, they’ve made their choice painfully clear to commercial Off Broadway producers.  In the West End, there’s no (real) distinction . . . and thus a great show is just a great show, no matter the size of the theater.

4.  It really is cheaper to produce there.

I spent the week in and out of meetings with London GMs and Producers and Investors and the most commonly asked question I got was, “Why is it so bloody expensive to produce in NYC?”  Of course, the question I asked all of them was, “Why is it so @#$%ing cheap to produce in London?”

Labor is a huge part of it, as you’d imagine, as are theater costs and advertising (look for a future blog that breaks down the differences precisely).  But the bottom line is it’s massively cheaper in London . . . which means it’s also easier to recoup.

Listen up NY elected officials as well as our theater owners . . . it’s hard for independent producers like myself not to think about taking our business elsewhere.

5.  They love Broadway.

Let’s face it, London is an amazing theater city.  They can put up classics without stars and sell out.  They get funding from their government to develop new works, which become crowdpleasers like War Horse and Curious Incident.  But despite all that they have in their backyards, I’m always amazed by how much they love and respect what we do here.  There’s a stereotype that the British are a bit snooty about their theater, but I never see it.  They love when we send them hits (although our exports that work the best there seem to be the ones that make fun of Americans), and they love when we embrace theirs.  There’s more that we can do with this relationship, and I plan on making it a mission of mine over the next several years.

Oh, and they also serve these cute little ice cream cups at intermissions.  We gotta get some of those.

Have you been to London?  What differences do you notice when you see a show there?  What do you like?  Dislike?

Let me know below!


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  • Iris says:

    Noooo! Leave the ice cream out the Broadway houses! And in fact, get them out of the West End houses, too. It’s theater, not the movies. Don’t get me wrong, I love ice cream as much as anyone. But there’s something so unclassy about these little cups, and every time I’ve been to a show in London I’ve seen half-empty cups sitting on the ground, with molten ice-cream in them, and they get knocked over and it’s just a mess. The whole thing cheapens the experience, in my opinion.

    The lack of free playbill has also always annoyed me. I only get those souvenir programs if I really, really, really loved a show and want to keepsake.

    Another big difference between West End and Broadway from a fan’s point of view: stage door really isn’t a thing there, except for shows with *huge* stars, and even there the crowd is much smaller than in NY. Why is that? I find it sad because I love to tell the actors I loved their show or performance afterwards (it’s not just about getting an autograph or photo), but it’s super awkward when you’re the only person there and I pretty much stopped stagedooring in London.

    I’ve seen those half price ticket booths, but never got tickets there. Are they legit? Can I trust them? I’ve read warnings online and always stuck with TKTS. The lines are much shorter than in TS which is nice, and they also occasionally sell concert tickets for venues like Royal Albert Hall. Could other NY venues like City Center, Carnegie Hall or the Beacon get on board with that? That would be neat!

    Overall, I prefer Broadway to the West End because what I said above, plus a larger variety of musicals, but I often find it a bit easier to get cheap tickets in London. Shorter lines not only at TKTS but also for rushes.

  • Sue says:

    I recently saw one West End show, one at the Globe and one by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon.
    Note: The shows start RIGHT on time. Do not be late.

    The highlight was a day trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Shakespeare’s place of birth, Anne Hathaway’s thatched-roof home (not that Anne Hathaway) and the brilliant RSC in their gorgeous home theatre. Get tix online ahead of time, before you leave the USA.

    • I studied abroad in London before returning to NY to work as an Actor in NY. I was fortunate enough to have experienced both Broadway and West End Theatre and my conclusion is we should value both for different reasons. My only question is whether or not they still dress up to go to the Theatre in London as opposed to not dressing up in NY. Call me old fashioned but I as a New Yorker I still love and expect to “dress up” to go to the Theatre. To me it is part of the experience.

  • Robin Fusco says:

    I was more than happy to spend money on programs in London that included the script for the show. Was a great takeaway to be able to go home and review parts of the show or interesting scenes.

  • Brian p says:

    Always loved the intermission ice cream and the punctual start times. I’m guessing none of the theatres still have pots of tea during the interval but that was a welcome treat when it used to occur.

  • Ugh

    I have to say–the one thing I was going to mention, you tossed in at the end there.

    As a former concessionaire and house manager, I must add my voice against the ice cream. I had many (British) requests for it on Broadway (great, now I put that out there, and we all know what that info translates to) but I really think it would be a headache.

  • YES – erase the ‘line’ between Broadway and off-Broadway…because OFF IS ON! Let’s get the Broadway League and the Off-Broadway League together and give patrons ONE strong brand!


  • Janis says:

    I loved London Theater for being London Theatre and Broadway for being Broadway.

    We need a choice even if it’s an ocean away.

  • Debi says:

    I love how West End theaters open early so you can hang out, go to the bar and make yourself comfortable before a show starts.

    It’s been years since I’ve been to London, but I also enjoyed the RSC at the Barbican and at Stratford. Nice restaurants were within the space – kind of like the Lincoln Center of theater.

    Either way – the West End always felt more cozy and civilized to me. Felt like the audience was treated with respect and made to feel welcome.

  • B. Russell says:

    I think the price of tickets (related to the price of producing shows) means a lot more people just see shows, which means more shows, off or on, have a chance. Also the spread of the theaters into more areas just gives it a vibe of being for everyone. Imagine if Brooklyn or Queens had a “Broadway” house. I’ve seen so many weird shows I would never pay to see in New York, because they were at the half price booth and it felt like a fun night out, not a stressful investment. Speaking of stressful investments, It seems a lot easier to invest on the West End, which I’ve done, than on Broadway, which I haven’t.

  • Jay says:

    Can’t wait to see the budget comparisons between London and Bway productions! — would be interesting to see comparisons of a show that ran in both Bway and West End to truly find out where the bloat/waste is.

    If it’s partly labor costs, I wonder how the different social support systems play into wages… If we had single-payer health care, probably labor here could be cheaper.

    Completely outrageous that the theaters get money from sales of programs instead of the productions…do they charge lower rent because of this kind of thing?

  • David Rigano says:

    I’m going to assume that the selling of souvenir programs instead of free playbills is somewhat new, perhaps from the 90s or a little later? Here’s why: last time I was in London a vendor at a stand in Covent Garden had a stack of old Playbills (just like the ones we see in NYC) from West End shows that someone had given him and he was just trying to get rid of (he didn’t sell theatrical memorabilia). He saw my interest and sold me the entire stack (minus the Chorus Line one, but I’m over it…) for a couple quid. It was still a great purchase, especially since two of the London playbills had been for shows my father had worked on in NYC, but most of them were from the late 80s. Perhaps these were souvenir programs that were sold at the theatre which were simply smaller then and have grown in scale over the years to be worth the five quid. Or maybe the souvenir programs are a new thing. I should have asked this man, but silly me. I didn’t.

  • Joshua says:

    So I actually took a chunk of money and lived in London for a month and a half last summer basically just seeing theatre. I saw 60-something shows. I also travel to NYC 3 or 4 times a year and see pretty much everything that opens on Broadway.

    Here are some other differences that haven’t been mentioned yet:
    -I loved that if I looked around, I could usually find a matinee somewhere on any day of the week.
    -There was not a single show that I could not find a way to get day seats or discount tickets to. Even the hardest shows to get into had some way for me to get discount tickets if I looked hard enough. I don’t think I ever paid more than 25 pounds for a show, and I got into every single show I wanted to.
    -The government subsidies for theaters like the National cannot be under emphasized. What the National is doing is remarkable. They are at the forefront of everything in the theatre world (with the exception of musical theatre) and it is just an inspiring place to be (subject matter of shows driectly benefitting society, women playwrights and directors, talkbacks and educational offerings after shows, etc…)
    -And my favorite item: There are young people and men in the audiences in London. I am 32 years old and when I am New York, usually 80-90% of audiences are older than me. In London, there a lot more theatregoers between the age of 20-35 it looked like. And a much higher percentage of men. For example, I saw a show at the Royal Court about rape culture (it was absolutely brilliant). It was a smaller theater done in the round so I actually counted and took specific note of the people in the audience because it surprised me so much. More than half of the audience was male. And more than half of the audience was probably younger than myself. Which made me so happy especially considering the subject matter. I’m not sure exactly what it is about British culture that encourages this, but it is something that NYC and America are definitely missing the boat on…
    -It is annoying to not get playbills, but I did love being able to buy the scripts of new plays for 3-5 pounds after the show. My script library is fantastic now!

  • John Sparks says:

    Several things strike me about the theatre in London: 1) more plays, and more new plays, are on the boards at any given time; 2) the quality of the acting is extraordinary and always seems effortless, without the gritty, intensity of a lot of American actors when they play roles that call for them to be angry or sad or hysterical; 3) the number of plays (versus musicals) that are popular enough to sell out and become hot tickets.

  • I’ve been attending theatre in London since I was 16, and I’ve been lucky enough to study acting there. I agree that I have never spent more than £25 to see a show between returns and day seats. Also in London, students and OAP can buy cheap tickets. As for programs, I’ve always had to pay for them ever since the 80’s. They have just gotten more expensive and glossier.

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