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Lyn Gardner: Theatre can be life-changing, no matter how short the play is

Andrew Scott will return to Sea Wall for a run at the Old Vic in June. Photo: Kevin Cummins Andrew Scott in Sea Wall at the Old Vic. Photo: Kevin Cummins
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Some theatre is like a haunting. It is a prickle down the spine, a sense that you are watching something uncanny, something that will stay with you. It will haunt you. You will carry it around inside you. The premiere of Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall at the Bush Theatre in 2008 was like that. Performed by Andrew Scott in the dying light of a winter’s evening, it was a devastating miniature, one of those plays that enters your soul.

This play about grief has just been revived at the Old Vic, again performed by Scott. The run ended on Saturday. I didn’t catch it because I was out of London. Otherwise I would definitely have bought a ticket. Anyone with an interest in theatre, or what it means to be human, would surely want to see one of Stephens’ finest plays, particularly one starring Scott.

But if I had gone, it would have been with trepidation about how Sea Wall might play in a far larger space and one without the intimacy of that stripped-back room at the Bush, which at the time was already in the process of relocating to its new premises around the corner. Natasha Tripney’s review for The Stage suggests, like some other reviewers who were also there first time around, that it did indeed sit less comfortably in the Old Vic than at the Bush, but that it remains hugely powerful. It packs more of a punch than many dramas twice or four times its length.

Sea Wall starring Andrew Scott – review at Old Vic, London – ‘a hypnotic performance’

Even so, some on social media questioned whether a play that lasts only 30 minutes can justify a ticket that costs £30 or £40 – or even a £10 ticket, of which some were available. But when did length in the theatre ever equate to value for money? I’ve had plenty of three-hour nights in the theatre when I gladly would have parted with hard cash to have half an hour lopped off the running time.

Choosing to use the money-to-running-time ratio in theatre means you would value Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Cenci over Samuel Beckett’s Not I. Many years ago, my students worked out that their trip to see Caryl Churchill’s Far Away had cost them about 30p a minute. Almost 20 years on, I bet that while many of the other shows they saw that semester have faded from memory, Far Away is still firmly lodged in their minds. It was another haunting.

But everyone’s idea of what constitutes value for money is different. Some people don’t think twice about spending £250 on a seat for Hamilton, but that depends very much on whether you have £250 to spend on theatre and how much you want to see the show.

When demand outstrips supply, the market adjusts. This is true not just in the West End. Many theatres around the country now use a dynamic-pricing model so they can maximise income for a hit show. A top-whack, premium ticket to the hottest show isn’t just about theatre­going, it’s about trophy collecting.

But value for money is also different from what constitutes a good night out. That might be very different for you than for me. We may have finally rid ourselves of the oft-touted but discredited notion that only a two or three-act play can provide the heft and meatiness of a really serious drama, but for many theatregoers, the play is only part of their night out.

It’s not a question of whether Sea Wall’s length makes it value for money (after all, the costs to open the theatre and lay on the staff are going to be similar whether the play lasts 30 minutes or two hours), but whether it fits the expectations of theatregoers. For many, a night at the theatre still means a couple of hours of entertainment, with a drink or an ice cream to look forward to at the interval. We are all creatures of habit, particularly when it comes to theatregoing.

Watching a play is part of a complex experience that comes with a weight of tradition and ritual

The play is not the thing, but part of a much more complex experience and one that comes with a weight of tradition and ritual. This makes me wonder if, when some question whether a 30-minute play can be worth the price of admission, what they are really saying is that it doesn’t match their expectation of what a night at the theatre will be.

In Edinburgh next month, audiences will be surprised and quite possibly disconcerted if a play lasts more than an hour because that is the model they have learned to expect.

The irony with Sea Wall is that when it was first produced by the Bush, its punch was diluted because it was programmed in an evening that included several plays, now all quietly forgotten. In the end, the value of any piece of theatre is not in how much it costs or how long it is, but in how it stays with you and how it changes you.

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