If you’ve ever found yourself walking the corridors of a West End theatre before taking your seat, you’ll probably have spotted posters for forgotten plays of yesteryear.
Whatever happened, for example, to Mary, Mary, a 1961 play by American dramatist Jean Kerr – unusually, an early-1960s play by a woman – which played at the Queen’s (now Sondheim) Theatre in 1963 and which starred, in her third major West End role, one Maggie Smith?
With its central role of a wisecracking journalist, it arrived after notching up two years on Broadway. I, for one, would have paid a lot to see Smith deliver the line: “By the time she is 30, a starlet has been taught to smile like a dead halibut.” It has a cast of just five and covers income tax, marriage, extra-marital affairs, divorce, alimony, exercise, weight-loss and sex: subjects, I think we can agree, that are not exactly antique.
That said, in his biography of Smith, Michael Coveney pointed out that the Daily Mail’s reviewer Bernard Levin punctured it by saying “it was constructed on ‘the washing-line principle’, with funny lines hung out to dry between the posts holding up the plot”, so perhaps it’s not the lost masterpiece one hoped for.
I’ll bet, however, that it obeyed the tradition stemming from the decades when English theatre aspired to the condition of French windows and a drinks trolley – in other words, in two acts plus an interval with a running time of two and a half hours, maximum.
This was what plays were ‘supposed’ to be like. But even though most conservative theatregoers these days are willing to concede that while there may no longer be a pressing need for the French windows, an hour or so either side of a drinks opportunity is ‘proper’ theatre.
What, then, are such audience members making of the short, sharp shock that is Far Away, now being revived at the Donmar Warehouse in London?
Caryl Churchill’s simple, yet scaldingly intense, dystopia from 2000 was first seen in a taut, terrifying and mesmerising Royal Court Upstairs production by Stephen Daldry which, incidentally, boasted an assistant director (Nina Raine) and a stage manager (Debbie Tucker Green) who both gave up their day jobs and became playwrights. Then, the play ran 50 minutes; at the Donmar, it’s nearer 40.
The night I saw it at this revival, the swift arrival of the curtain call threw some members of the unusually elderly audience off-guard. They clearly expected more. That echoed the complaints from some quarters when Daldry’s original transferred for a short season to the West End’s Albery Theatre (now the Noël Coward) that the play was too short to merit its ticket price.
Yet, as Sarah Crompton wrote when closing her review of this revival: “It’s a tiny play, but an immense one. Chilling and thought-provoking. The evening may be short, but you couldn’t watch anything else. It’s already too much.”
At the opposite end of spectrum, we have the faintly horrified response to the National Theatre’s production of The Visit and the warning issued on the theatre’s website that the running time was 4 hours and 10 minutes.
That’s a big ask, though not as big as the first preview of Trevor Nunn’s torpid production of the misbegotten Gone with the Wind musical, which reportedly lasted 4 hours and 25 minutes. By the time I saw it on opening night it was down to three and a half, but felt far longer.
The night I saw Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, the swift arrival of the curtain call threw some members of the unusually elderly audience off-guard – they clearly expected more
Back to the lengthy running time for The Visit, it was to be expected since Dürrenmattt’s 1956 play has been adapted by Tony Kushner, who does nothing by halves. Even his titles can be outsized: The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.
When the National put on Kushner’s Angels in America, the playwright was persuaded by director Declan Donnellan to trim it. The only trouble was, his rewrites were longer than the cut material.
Kushner has acquiesced further on The Visit, with director Jeremy Herrin making cuts, especially to the first part and by removing an epilogue, bringing the show down to three and a half hours. But that includes not one but two intervals.
Several critics have grumbled about the length but two intervals means the play is presented, if not in bite-sized chunks, then in distinctly manageable proportions – unlike numerous 90-minute plays I’ve sat through that felt as though they lasted my entire life.
Herrin understands that The Visit is less of a play, more an extraordinary fable whose resonances need to unfold gently.
Aided and abetted by a career-best, fire-breathing Lesley Manville as the glitteringly bitter leading lady, he creates a supremely theatrical production which proves, once and for all, that duration – long or short – is never the yardstick of quality.
Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict