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Theatre running time

Are audiences short-changed by short running times?

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

Like most of my drama critic colleagues who tend, by and large, to spend far too much of our time in darkened auditoriums, it comes as something of a relief to arrive at a theatre and find out that you're in for a short evening.

But is it possible for a show to be too short to really make it an evening at the theatre? This week, by a curious coincidence, there have been three shows open on consecutive nights that have each been an hour or less long.  

At the Royal Court, all of it - a monologue written by Alistair McDowell and performed by Kate O'Flynn that opened on Monday - runs for just 40 minutes; on Tuesday night Frances Barber opened in another solo show Musik at Leicester Square Theatre, which runs for just an hour; and last night Caryl Churchill's Far Away opened at the Donmar Warehouse, also running for just 40 minutes. Next week, meanwhile, brings another Churchill revival A Number to the Bridge Theatre, which is also currently being billed as due to run for about an hour.

With tickets for the latter costing between £15 and £55, that's more than a pound a minute in the theatre; at the Donmar, with top price tickets at £40, that's exactly a pound a minute.

But you shouldn't necessarily measure a play by its length in relation to its ticket price, but by its content. In a 2015 piece in the Guardian, Mark Lawson quoted director Dominic Cooke saying of Churchill's work: "Caryl has changed the perception of what can constitute a full evening." Lawson added, "This is because, he argues, she is increasingly concerned with compressing plot and dialogue to their absolute essentials, so that her one-act plays have the impact of a full-length drama. Far Away, for instance, may last less than three-quarters of an hour, but has three acts and covers a 15-year period, with the result that, in performance, it can feel as meaty as King Lear."

In other words, it depends on the play and the production, too. Reviewing all of it for the Evening Standard, Nick Curtis wrote, "Often I doubt whether very short shows are worth the effort of a theatre visit. This one is." But then he adds, "With a lesser actor it might not be." So it depends on the star, too. 

But other, much longer plays can be a different kind of hell. The uniformly dismal reviews for The Taming of the Shrew, currently being revived in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe, include this comment from Claire Allfree in the Daily Telegraph: "The pace is funereal (quite how one of Shakespeare's shortest plays somehow fills three hours is a mystery) and the metronomic delivery (notably from Mattia Mariotti's deeply unfunny Grumio) eventually agonising."

This week, too, a new production of Durenmatt's The Visit opens at the National, for which early previews ran for over 4 hours. It has now been trimmed to a reported three and a half hours (including two intervals). And the matter of length featured prominently in the West End Whingers report of the show: "You wait a lifetime for a play that features a character limp, blind people, prosthetic limbs and some funny business on a step ladder and you get two in a row. Endgame managed to squeeze all those elements into 85 minutes. This one has them too but takes things a little more leisurely. Four hours. Four flipping hours!! That's what the National's website was promising last week when Phil payed [sic] a visit to, err, The Visit.

They go on, "Was it to prepare us for the relief of seeing a sign in the theatre that it was now running at a relatively nippy 3 hours 40 minutes? Phil checked at the box office as he picked up his tickets. '3 hours 40 minutes, with 2 intervals,' said the perky box office woman,  'But it could be longer. It should be over by 11pm.'  (This was from a 7pm start) 'But it is very good'. 'Good?'  Though Phil, 'It needs to be bloody superb'."

Of course, all of us want theatre to be "bloody superb", whatever the length. But while you may feel distinctly short-changed by an event that isn't and runs for less than an hour, at least you'll feel mighty relief if a show is both long and good. That was the particular joy of The Inheritance, the amazing two-parter, seven-hour drama that played at the Young Vic before transferring to the West End. When it transferred to Broadway, Ben Brantley in the New York Times wrote: "Everything about it — its themes, its form, its frame of reference and the desires of its characters — is of a scale with its length." And even if he expresses some doubts about the journey it takes, he concludes, "Ultimately, the play twists itself into ungainly pretzels as it tries to join all the thematic dots on its immense canvas. Yet even by the end of the overwrought second half of The Inheritance, you're likely to feel the abiding, welcome buzz of energy that comes from an unflagging will to question, to create, to contextualize, to — oh, why not? — only connect." 

Originally published on

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