Richard Jordan: This trend for scrapping the interval isn’t doing theatre any favours
In recent years, I have observed a development in the experience of theatregoing that worries me. Friends and colleagues virtually cartwheel with joy as they are greeted by the usher telling them the show is straight through, with no interval.
Let’s be clear: there are some plays for which the one-act format is well-served. A taut, well-written short play can be as rewarding as an epic. And there’s certainly an argument for not sitting through four hours of Hamlet at the end of a hard day’s work. Indeed, perhaps the one-act play is a reaction to today’s fast-paced world and shorter attention spans; this season Broadway has had five productions playing without interval.
A one-act play doesn’t make economic sense for theatre landlords
But the trend is short-sighted. Theatre will have a big fight on its hands if watching a longer play is considered a chore. And I worry that lack of attention pervades the industry, too. A few weeks ago, a young actor told me his agent had advised him against taking a credible part in an Off-West End production because his character did not appear until the second act. The agent felt he would lose out on producers and casting directors coming to see him. Apparently they were not willing to hang around for the second half.
Outside the fringe, the one-act play doesn’t make economic sense for theatre landlords. Art, the first real breakout commercial West End play to run to a cool 90 minutes with no interval, ran for eight years, a fallow period for the bar and ice cream revenue. Some theatres, perhaps as a result, introduced an interval clause to their production contracts demanding weekly compensation if the show runs straight through.
And there is a danger that the one-act play creates a division between London and regional theatres. Earlier this year, I saw Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill at London’s Royal Court – a brilliant 50 minutes of theatre. The majority of its audience had come straight from work, and faced a journey home afterwards. But last month this production completed a UK tour where, at Cambridge Arts Theatre, the top ticket price was £33 – 66p per minute.
I wonder if the audience feels short-changed? There’s every chance that some of them will have spent more time getting to the theatre than they would have spent in their seats. Could Escaped Alone not have been paired with another of Churchill’s one-act plays?
Theatre must represent quality and value, and the audience will, to some degree, expect a certain length. A longer play with an interval creates the sense of occasion that encourages further bookings. And the importance of that is not to be overlooked.
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