Private Viewing: Will the theatre interval really become a relic of past times?

Kerry Ellis and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt in Murder Ballad, a new no interval musical currently play

Kerry Ellis and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt in Murder Ballad, a new no interval musical currently playing in London's West End - Credit: Archant

In recent years theatre intervals have started to disappear. Arts editor Andrew Clarke has a theory why

While you could never say that the theatre interval has disappeared, I have noticed a growing trend for more full- length plays to be staged without a mid-evening break.

During the course of this year I have arrived at a theatre, collected my tickets and on about half-a-dozen occasions been told: “The play’s about 90 minutes, straight through.” This statement is box office code for ‘make sure you go to the loo beforehand as there is no interval’.

Last weekend I caught up with Kerry Ellis’s new musical Murder Ballad at The Arts Theatre, behind Leicester Square station, that turned out to be a dazzling 90-minute straight-through experience. This was the first musical I’ve encountered which abandoned the whole notion of a first half-closer – no big number before the audience is encouraged to dive into the bar for a drink or scoop up some ice cream.

The long-running theatrical experience Stomp is also a 100- minute, interval-free package which brings music, performance and staging together into a concentrated spectacle.

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Straight-through performances work best when they keep an audience enveloped in a carefully constructed world, where a stroll into the daylight or a return to 21st Century normality will shatter the illusion the director, writer, cast and crew have worked so hard to create.

Most straight-through shows benefit from theatre’s ability to transport audiences to somewhere that has a pervasive atmosphere or an enclosed emotional environment which helps to tell the story.

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Earlier this year I saw Kenneth Cranham in the Olivier-winning play The Father which was incredibly moving and worked exceptionally well because it didn’t have an interval. It told the story of a man suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease but the play was staged in such a way that the audience got to view the world from his perspective.

The action unfolded in a series of short, sharp episodes in which the furniture was moved or removed between scenes and although the characters stayed the same, the actors playing them changed, so the audience got a taste of the old man’s confusion.

It was brilliantly realised and the effect would have been diluted had we been allowed out into the fresh air at the half-way stage.

Similarly, with Murder Ballad, it’s a show which is tautly plotted and relies on a sense of momentum to deliver the maximum punch, helped by a terrific twist which would also have lost impact if part of the second half was used in re-establishing the story, the setting and the characters.

Recently, The Gallery Players successfully fused a traditional two-act play, The House of Bernarda Alba, and delivered it as a straight-through performance. It worked brilliantly because it was performed in Christchurch Mansion and again kept the audience in an enclosed world until everything was resolved.

Again this was a play that relied on wrapping the audience in an enclosed hot-house atmosphere to get the most from the action. It was real immersive theatre and that’s where straight-through plays work best.

Don’t get me wrong, I love an interval and sometimes you need an emotional break and a chance for a stretch, particularly in older theatres when you don’t necessarily have the leg room of more modern venues. Also, it’s great to have the opportunity to talk through the events of the first half. An interval gives you the opportunity to assimilate everything you have seen, to make sense of a convoluted plot or just share and relive some great moments.

From a commercial point of view, an interval offers a theatre a valuable opportunity to boost its revenue through sales of drinks, programmes and ice creams. It provides stage crew with an opportunity to change scenery or re-set things for the second half. It also gives the evening a sense of structure.

But, increasingly the interval may become a thing of the past. Fringe theatre and festivals like Edinburgh have long preferred shorter, punchier, interval-free performances because it allows them the opportunity to programme one more performance per evening. Younger audiences, with work looming the following morning, also prefer an evening at the theatre which allows them to get home while the street lamps are still on.

I don’t think we will ever lose the interval but it is clear you no longer need one. I think, in future, the presence of a half-time break will be a creative decision rather than a matter of tradition.

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