Lyn Gardner

21st March 2019

Lyn Gardner writes about theatre for The Stage and Stagedoor and is recipient of the 2017 UK Theatre Award for outstanding contribution to British Theatre.

A friend, not a regular theatre goer, recently told me that she had been to see a show. She had loved it, but she hadn’t loved the lack of an interval. She reckoned that one hour 50 minutes was too long to sit in the theatre without a break.

It’s lucky that she hasn’t got tickets to see Follies at the NT which runs for two hours and 15 minutes straight through, restoring Stephen Sondheim’s show to the one act format in which it was originally conceived. Or All About Eve at the Noel Coward which in Ivo van Hove’s production runs at two hours without an interval.

For years the West End often seemed as if it was the last bastion of the interval in a theatre culture where, on the fringe, performances are becoming ever shorter and where in programmes a debut play that lasts a mere hour is often billed as the playwright’s first “full length play.”  But even in the West End there seems to be a shift towards the interval free evening.

I reckon it might have started with the 2013 revival of A Chorus Line at the London Palladium—home to many an epic musical and even more epic pantos—which ran straight through.  The evening finished early enough to have dinner afterwards without risking indigestion all night.

Certainly, there are increasing numbers of West End shows which are dispensing with the interval including the musical Come from Away at the Phoenix and Betrayal at the Harold Pinter. We may well see more as audiences become less attached to the convention that there must be a break in the performance that allows for a glass of wine and an ice-cream. Although of course no interval can have quite considerable impact on bladders, and also means no half-time bar sales which has consequences for a theatre’s income.

We shouldn’t under estimate how much some people hold dear the peripheries that surround a theatre performance from the lights dimming to the pre-ordered interval drink. Those in the business might think the play’s the only thing, but for audiences while the show may be central to their evening out it is also part of a much broader experience.

I once went to see a matinee of an Eastern Angles performance where the announcement of a lack of an interval caused some consternation as a predominantly elderly audience realised they might not get their interval ice-cream. It was easily solved: large numbers of people stood around eating a pre-show ice-cream very happily. It was a reminder that just as theatre-going itself is a habit, so too are the conventions surrounding it. For that audience going to the theatre was not complete without an ice-cream.

Plenty of movies run to over two hours plus and they don’t have a refreshment and toilet break in the middle, so why should theatre? Although cinemas do tend to have more comfortable seats than many theatres. Some plays either by their structure or their length demand an interval. But modern stagecraft and technology have often diminished the need for the break that might once have been demanded by a set change.

Back in 2017, Dr Who writer Steven Moffat raged in The Daily Telegraph against the theatre interval, arguing all shows should run straight through so audiences didn’t have to drink “the worst red wine” in the breaks. But I am confident that he would change his mind if sitting through A Long Day’s Journey into Night, which definitely lives up to its name, or King Lear.

Mind you, there are plenty of Shakespeare plays from Macbeth to Julius Caesar which are greatly improved by being played straight through.  Maybe we will yet discover that King Lear is one of them too, but it would be a brave producer who tried.

Some people are attached to the interval because of its social function and a chance to start dissecting the show in progress, and others like intervals because it gives them a chance to leave if they are not enjoying the show. I have sometimes wondered whether Robert Icke is so devoted to the interval (both his Oresteia and Uncle Vanya boasted three, all brief) because he once told The Times that he left shows at the interval “all the time” and wants his audiences to be able to do the same. Although if they did, they would have missed cracking shows.

In the end, like any decision made around a production, evaluating whether or not to have an interval must be driven by artistic considerations. I have seen productions ruined by the insertion of an unnecessary interval which has broken both momentum and the spell, but also recognise that an artfully placed interval can enhance impact and create expectation for the second half.

But I think that my friend who complained about the length of that show, and the rest of us, are probably looking to a future where although the interval as a convention is unlikely to completely die out, it will – like the swish of red velvet curtains and wearing evening dress to the theatre – become far less prevalent. That means that it is not just audiences who will have to look after their bladders, but actors too.

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