To buy a ticket for a hotly tipped play, within seconds of booking opening, requires perseverance and nerve as websites falter, payments vanish and a confirmation finally limps through. The goal is to see a top cast, whose fluency and fluidity is testament to years of determination – getting to drama school, being noticed at the end-of-year shows, getting an audition, getting a part and nailing it.
Curious, then, that having made it into the best show in town, on the stage or in the auditorium, what we all really, really want to do is go home again. But there is an increasing trend for plays to run without an interval and it is heaven on earth for players and patrons alike.
Directors and playwrights like straight-through plays for artistic reasons. Audiences like them because they are spared the unappetising choice between 20 minutes’ silent contemplation of the stucco, or shuffling to the bar for a drink they do not want at a price that cannot be justified, except as a theatre-restoration levy. What’s more, those with trains to catch can get moving earlier.
And the actors? It’s a rare night when the front-runners are not through the stage door before the first theatregoer has ventured into the night. (Hearing the cast discuss the performance’s disasters as you trot behind adds an extra dimension to the evening’s entertainment.)
Of the most memorable productions recently, several gained forcibly by going from first to last page without respite: the Almeida’s Ghosts, now transferred to the Trafalgar Studios, Lesley Manville’s incomparable Mrs Alving (right) spinning relentlessly towards a mother’s worst fear; The Scottsboro Boys, at the Young Vic, transforming seamlessly from feelgood vaudeville to tragedy; and Blurred Lines in the Shed at the National Theatre, in which the sheer accumulation of injustices against women constitutes a shocking and maddening whole.
Some plays need a break, as the two-hour first half of the National’s new King Lear vividly demonstrates. But it’s a rare work that improves for stopping and starting.
My only regret, if this excellent trend continues, will be the loss of surreal exchanges such as this one at the interval of a West End performance of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, his 1998 play about nuclear arms: “Tomato juice, please.” “We’re out of tomato juice.” “Really?” “Yes. We get through a lot of tomato juice on this show.”