A trip to the theatre can be a costly treat – one that many of us will consider in the run-up to Christmas and the New Year.

But there are ways to step out into the bright lights of London’s West End and get seats for a sell-out show – without the drama of breaking the bank.

Just the ticket: Toby ended up paying just £10 to see No Man’s Land

Queue up for a return

One of the must-see theatre shows of the season is Harold Pinter’s classic play No Man’s Land, starring Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart at Wyndham’s Theatre.

Tickets have sold like hot cakes and, thanks to rave reviews, have now almost all been gobbled up. There are just a handful of expensive seats left for the entire run, which ends on December 17. So £150 will buy a place in the stalls or Royal Circle, while touts are selling seats for more than £200.

There was no way I was prepared to pay that kind of money, but as a fan of Pinter – and dazzled by the opportunity to see such legendary luvvies work together – I decided to chance my luck by queuing on the day.

Turning up at 6pm with a wad of cash – payments by card are not accepted for returns on the day – I was fourth in the queue for a show that was due to start in one and a half hours.

The tourist at the front of the queue told me she had arrived 15 minutes earlier hoping to bag a seat.

Over the next 90 minutes a handful of other people queued behind me patiently waiting for a spot of luck. At 6.30pm the doors swung open and a theatre attendant waved a couple of returns as if holding a pair of Willy Wonka golden tickets. The lucky first two in the queue got a pair of seats for a total of £70.

Now beginning to shiver in the street, the rest of us had to wait until after 7pm for the next available ticket to turn up. A young woman had been stood up by her date – and offered to sell the seat beside her.

She had paid £125 for the seat but would let it go to the highest bidder. An American tourist immediately in front of me offered £80. The two next in the line – me and a fellow cheapskate British theatre lover – had a £50 budget and were happy to go along with the first-come, first-serve rule of etiquette in queues.

Legendary: Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart in the Pinter classic

Nerves were beginning to jangle as the minutes ticked by. At 7.25pm, a young female student tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I would like to accompany her and a friend to the theatre. They had been let down by a colleague and asked if I would be willing to pay the £10 face value of the ticket to join them up in the gods on the theatre’s balcony. Having gallantly accepted, there was even time to celebrate my success with a beer at the bar – which I took in just as the curtain was being raised.

How those behind me in the queue fared in their quest I never found out. Part of the drama of queuing for a return is not just where you might sit and how much you must pay but if you get a seat at all. As for the play, I would have happily paid £50 for my seat. Seeing two of the country’s finest actors brilliantly bring a Harold Pinter play to life will stay long in my memory.

VERDICT: Turning up at least an hour before a show is a gamble – but with luck you can bag a £10 seat for a sell-out show. It’s a high-risk but low-cost approach.

A family affair: Toby with his wife Sacha and children Sophia and Harrison Gripping: Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Coliseum

Go online for a special offer

Websites that offer theatre ticket discounts can provide unexpected bargains for those who are flexible about what they wish to see – and when. They can prove useful in finding cheap tickets for Christmas pantomimes.

London magazine Time Out provides regular special offers – sometimes offering 50 per cent discounts on full-priced theatre seats. You can sign up to receive special email offers. Alternatively, you can pay £24.50 a year which entitles you to a Time Out card securing a further 10 per cent discount on selected offers.

Website Theatre Monkey not only finds discounted deals but also provides a handy guide to the best seats in the house of many London theatres – and ones to avoid.

Lastminute offers special deals which include a meal as well as the show for less than you would pay for a full-priced ticket. It also allows you to identify bargains at regional theatres.

Costly treat: A ticket to see The Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House can cost £120

The Official London Theatre website – run by The Society of London Theatre – also lists shows along with prices. It has special promotions, such as the Get Into London Theatre campaign held in January and February, where you can often get into top shows for half price.

Theatre.com not only provides full details of availability and seating plans but reviews to help you decide what is the best show to see.

Users of smartphone app TodayTix have a lucky dip chance of finding a last-minute ticket at a bargain price. The app details a limited number of seats released by some theatres for shows. If your name is pulled out of the hat, you get a chance to buy one.

The website Big Panto Guide provides a list of pantomimes being performed this Christmas – including details of regional amateur dramatic shows where you can enjoy all the fun and entertainment for a few pounds. Website WhatsOnStage has details of all the major pantos.

VERDICT: The internet has made buying affordable theatre tickets easier. But you will need to be flexible – and trawl a variety of websites to unearth the best bargains.