It's not your imagination: evenings at the theatre really are shrinking. One of the best plays of last year Nick Payne's Constellations ran for 1 hour and 5 minutes and Caryl Churchill's A Number, revived at the Young Vic earlier this year, ran for just 50 minutes. Now the world premiere of Churchill's latest Here We Go lasts barely 40 minutes — and half of that, at least, is a wordless performance ballet as we simply watch an elderly man being repeatedly dressed and then undressed by his carer.
Yet this is being sold not as a curtain raiser to a longer evening; instead, it is playing at 7pm nightly, though the National are, in their publicity materials, making helpful suggestions to 'Make the most of your evening" by suggesting you make a double bill of it by going around the corner to the Dorfman Theatre afterwards to see their new production of Evening at the Talk House after (why stop at seeing one dull play in a night when you can see two)? Or alternatively, they suggest, "Add a meal in our stylish restaurant House."
Whichever way you slice it, though, Here We Go clearly isn't much of a theatrical meal on its own. Churchill is nowadays revered and feted as one the most adventurous of all living playwrights, for testing the limitless possibilities of theatrical form; but Here We Go merely tests the limits of our patience.
It's an event — to call it a play is stretching a point too far — about death: rewinding from an elegant post-funeral party, where the partygoers swap small-talk about the deceased (and then tell us of the means and age of their own passing) to a figure (Patrick Godfrey) caught in the half-light of a post-life antechamber contemplating his passing, before we finally see the same man's daily rituals as he approaches that death.
I have to acknowledge the stark beauty of Dominic Cooke's production, and the beautifully lit calibrations of its various settings, which earns it an extra star; and I should also say for the record that the National Theatre first night audience sat rapt, as if witnessing some kind of high art. But I'm afraid I just didn't connect with it at all.
"I would describe it as a complete stinker but that sends us on a false scent, because this short play about death is entirely odourless and colourless, theatre’s answer to carbon monoxide; though only 45 minutes long, its sheer tedium left me gasping to be let out of the Lyttelton."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"Dominic Cooke directs with great care, Vicki Mortimer’s design is austerely effective and Godfrey faces death and the deprivations of old age unflinchingly."
Micheal Billington for The Guardian
"As a practical joke on London’s bien pensants, it is a hoot. Trendy chinstrokers will rush along to worship political Miss Churchill’s latest masterpiece and will have to sit there, smiles of self-adornment slowly cracking as it dawns on them they’ve just been had."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"The last 15 minutes are wordless; I don’t think I’ve ever sat through such an extended period of silence in a drama before...Inevitably, some will carp, but I was mesmerised."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard