Lyn Gardner

15th October 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.

Are audiences falling out of love with the traditional two-and-half hour-ish drama, the evening in the theatre that begins at 7.30 and deposits audiences back on the pavement sometime between 10 and 10.30pm? I ask, because a few times recently I’ve invited friends to see shows with me and their first query is not who wrote it or who is in it, but how long is it. I’ve noticed that the younger the person in question, the more likely the interrogation concerning the running time.

I’m not long back from the Edinburgh Fringe where it is rare to see a show that lasts more than 70 minutes and where most slots are merely an hour. Playwrights from Caryl Churchill to Pinter have proved time and again that brevity doesn’t necessarily equate with a lack of content. Beckett’s Not I was performed at the Royal Court by Lisa Dwan in around nine minutes. I doubt anybody who saw it felt short-changed.

For an increasing number of younger theatre-makers, whose work is often devised and co-created, 80 minutes or less is quite enough to say what they want to say. Why detain anyone longer than necessary? Better to leave an audience wanting more not less.

For many young theatre-goers, the one-hour Edinburgh slot fits their idea of a good night (or afternoon) out that can be slotted around their other activities and their hangovers. But could the increasing dominance of the fringe model be limiting the nature and scope of the work made and which is therefore available for touring, and spawning a lack of patience on the part of audiences with any show that lasts longer than 80 minutes?

Twenty years or so ago, a night out at the theatre was expected to be just that. Anything less than two-and-a-half hours and you wouldn’t have felt as if you had had your money’s worth. The two or three act structure of most plays demanded at least two and a half hours and audiences gave it willingly. Just as long as they got a gin and tonic in the interval.

But times change, people are busier than they have ever been, working longer hours too. Theatre-making is changing too and the way that playwrights’ structure and write constantly shifts and develops, expands and contracts. Different forms require different time scales from the sometimes startlingly brief to rich extended storytelling.  My young friends may be reluctant to sign up for a traditional length show (unless perhaps it is a musical) but they are queuing up to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and had no qualms about trying to secure standby tickets to see The Inheritance.

It may stand true for older theatre goers too that the very short and the very long both have a clear appeal, but it is the traditional average length play that is increasingly squeezed and less alluring requiring ever greater star power to tempt people in.

The 70-minute show allows you to have dinner or drinks with friends and get home in time to catch up on Succession, while an epic such as The Inheritance or Gatz is an experience that you surrender yourself to entirely. The longer it goes on the more you invest yourself in it, the more it becomes an experience that you talk about with friends in exactly the same way you would talk about going paragliding or on a weekend break. It is out of the ordinary and therefore feels more special.

Of course, artists have to make the work they want to make at the length they want, and it is unlikely that we will start seeing a decline or demand for really great productions of Shakespeare or Ibsen just because they fit the two-and-a-half hour model.  But clearly the changing nature of theatre shows and different lengths present increasing challenges to those who produce and present the work in venues across the country.

We have increasingly seen the West End rise to the challenge of the very short or the very long, but as theatre evolves and changes shape, and a rising generation of makers, writers and theatre-goers emerges, it is a nettle that the main houses of regional theatres will also have to grasp to. Because the length of a show does matter to audiences and raises significant questions around pricing, bar sales, timing, programming and what in the 21st century constitutes a good night out at the theatre for audiences.

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