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Ask Lyn: If a play isn't gripping in the first 20 minutes, is it alright to leave?

Ask Lyn: If a play isn't gripping in the first 20 minutes, is it alright to leave?

Ask Lyn: If a play isn't gripping in the first 20 minutes, is it alright to leave? cover photo on Stagedoor
"Dear Lyn, I saw recently that crime novelist Mark Billingham suggested you should give up on any book that hadn’t griped you within the first 20 pages. I once read that in theatre one page of script equals about one minute of playing time..."

"...Does this mean if I am not enjoying a play, it’s alright to leave after the first 20 minutes?" - Pablo, Chalk Farm

Dear Pablo,

No, probably not unless you are watching Beckett’s Not I—in which case it will be long over and you will be sitting in the auditorium all on your tod—or unless you are exceptionally rude and have no respect for the actors. If a show doesn’t grip, it is very seldom the actors’ fault. They are just trying to do their best with bad tools and materials. Wait for the interval and then decide.

It is easy to toss a book aside without upsetting anyone, but bailing out of a theatre production at the 20 minute mark is liable to cause major disruption and make you the focus of attention, particularly if you are in the middle of a row. So, grin and bear it until the interval, and hope that the director hasn’t decided to play an uncut version of King Lear straight through.

Of course not everyone agrees. The critic James Agate once observed that “in a barrel of bad beer the last glass will not be any better than, say, the second,” arguing that “bad plays never get any better and you do not lessen tedium by adding to it.” Although Great Aunt Cecily says that British theatre-goers have a tried and tested way of enduring theatrical tedium: they simply fall asleep and snore gently.

I’d agree that there is a rush of exhilaration in leaving a play before the end and reclaiming your evening feels oddly thrilling, although I wonder if anyone paying premium seat prices ever bails. Maybe if they have more money than sense and really don’t care whether or not they find out what happens to Nora or Hedda at the end, they do but perhaps if you pay top whack at the theatre you end up invested in it simply because of the prodigious outlay.

As somebody who has sat through thousands of plays, some of which have been very hard work indeed, right to the very bitter end, I’d say that while leaving at the interval might feel like a liberation, there is also a pleasure in enduring. Even the most unpromising play will have moments of interest, and if it’s so bad that it’s inept at least you will have something to laugh about for years afterwards. In my house I only have to say Menopause the Musical and Peter Pan El Musical for Great Aunt Cecily to dissolve into helpless giggles. She who laughs, lasts. At least at the theatre.

Cover image by Kazuo ota on Unsplash

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Lyn Gardner

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