Confessions of a Box Office Manager: Looking a gift horse in the mouth

When it’s a quiet day at the theatre, our West End mole thinks he’s doing the audience a favour by upgrading their seats

Confessions of a Box Office Manager
Confessions of a Box Office Manager

The Royal Wedding was bad news for theatre, for the one day anyway. Hardly surprising of course: a national occasion involving the monarchy, the inexhaustible British enthusiasm for an en masse party, and gorgeous weather, equals a collective and understandable unwillingness amongst the populace to come and sit in a darkened room and watch a matinee performance. If I hadn't been scheduled to work (who does these flaming rotas anyway…Oh wait, that'll be me) I would certainly have been at home with all the windows open, in front of the telly sporting a Union Jack T-shirt while getting patriotically plastered on Pimms.

As it is though, the Big Day found me suited and booted, perspiring delicately, gazing at the matinee plan and wondering how to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, or rather, trying to dress the house so that a couple of hundred people looked like nearer a thousand. There's nothing worse than being at a sparsely attended performance when they get to the end of a thunderous musical number and are greeted by the sort of tepid applause that sounds like half a dozen people trying to kill mosquitoes. Atmosphere is everything in the theatre and by God I'm going to create that today for my beautiful cast and loyal audience members…or die trying.

The seats we have moved her to have a fabulous view but she is fixated on being in the front row

First step is to close the upper circle. Even on a quiet house that tends to sell pretty well, the ticket prices up there usually being more generally affordable, while huge swathes of the premium and band A stalls and dress sit unoccupied. So, myself and my trusty colleagues are busy trawling through the COBO rack, taking out all of the upper circle tickets and putting them to one side to re-allocate into much better seats further down in the house. The ushers will be given a list of alternative seat numbers to use on the door for people who have already got their upper circle tickets. It's a win-win situation, or so you'd think…

When filling stalls or dress gaps with upper circle customers it's always a good idea to leave a couple of seats between them and the pre-booked higher price-paying patrons: it's an inaccurate urban myth that Londoners don't talk to each other; in my experience, they like nothing better than comparing money spent with their neighbours and before you can say "this is your two minute call" you've got a premium booker at your box office window breathing fire, demanding to know why the "smelly oik" (yes I'm afraid that was indeed the term used) sitting next to them only paid a fraction of their ticket price. Try styling THAT one out when you've been on your feet all day and all you want is to get home to a microwave curry and Question Time.

Anyway, we seem to be winning and the majority of the relocated audience members are thrilled with their cheeky upgrade, and play along with our not-as-jokey-as-it-sounds request to not tell the people sitting around them that they've been moved. A couple of them have been a bit querulous but they soon shut up when they realise how much better a view they are going to get, and at no extra cost.

Except one. Oh yes, there is always one isn't there.

I can hear her giving one of the clerks grief from two windows along. She's demanding to speak to the box office manager so I finish with my customer and wander over.

"Tim" I say to the clerk, "Do you want to go and take over at my window and I'll speak to this lady?" Tim can't get out of the way fast enough. Oh dear.

"Hello," I say, feeling my jaw tighten, "I am the box office manager. Is everything OK?"

"No! It bleedin well isn't!" she screeches.

"OK, what's the prob-"

"I booked front row! Front row I booked! And now…NOW…it says I'm in row E. Row E! That's fifth row innit! I am NOT sitting in the fifth row! Front row I paid for and front row I want! Sort it!"

Finally she stops waving her tickets in my face (literally) and slams them down on the counter. I go to take them but her balled fist is pinning them to the seating plan.

"I'm sorry madam, could I just…would you mind… er, can I just…have a…look? At the tickets? If you could just move your hand…?"

Growling "Row E" repeatedly like a demonic mantra, she lifts her fist while I grab the pair of tickets, then she brings said fist crashing back down on to the work top. The couple at the next window peer over in alarm.

I am trying so hard to keep the sarcasm out of my voice

I look and sure enough she had booked the front row of the upper: band C, pretty high up but a decent view. However, the seats we have moved her to are fifth row of the dress circle, dead centre, fabulous view, and with a face value of more than double what she paid. I politely point this out, hoping it will mollify her, but oh no… she is fixated on being in the front row. I check the plan to see if I've a pair left in the front row of either of the other two levels…no such luck, unless you count two seats right at the side of row A stalls. They are a pretty restricted view; I'm not even mentioning those to her, she's furious enough as it is.

"OK" I say, "What about if I move you further forward to, say, third, no second, yes second row of the Dress Circle? Those are premium seats, and you get an aisle. Look!" (Blimey, this is so much harder than it needs to be.)


Alright, I'm done. "No, fair enough. You booked those seats and of course you must sit it in them. Just to warn you though, you and your companion will be on your own up there. Apart from the usher. We legally have to put an usher in with you. There won't be much atmosphere up there. Are you happy with that?" (By this point I am trying so hard to keep the sarcasm out of my voice.)

I call over the duty manager. "Hello Simon. This lady would like to sit in her original seats. Which are at the front of the upper circle. So could you arrange that please?"

Simon stares at me as though I've just told him that Meghan jilted Harry at the altar: "WHAT?? Why?!"

"She just feels she would be happier sitting up there…"

Simon opens his mouth to launch into an up-sell of why the dress circle is so much better when he catches my eyes (which are now like saucers) and promptly shuts up.

"So, if you'd like to follow Simon, he will take you to your rightful seats" I say, gratefully handing back this woman's tickets, which she grabs without a word. He will also have to force one of the ushers – the majority of whom are just lounging about aimlessly, to be fair – to sit upstairs for the duration of the show. This won't be popular, but it's not as though we don't have enough staff for a day like this.

By the time the curtain goes up, the front sections of the stalls and dress circle are looking pretty respectable, thanks to the box office team's 'dressing' skills. Yay us! Meanwhile up above them all that delightful woman, her chum and one seriously disgruntled usher will be watching the performance from a very steep angle, albeit with plenty of room to spread out. So…the majority of customers got lovely seats, the upper circle lady remained where she had booked, the cast were faced with an audience it was mostly worth making an effort for, we entirely missed the wedding festivities…next time there is a big event happening I think I'm going to book that day off.

But hey, nobody died.