Back in the early 80s, I was at the Westminster Theatre watching a performance of my play, THE GINGERBREAD MAN. Beside me sat my elder daughter, Katherine, aged about five. She had seen the play several times since sitting up in her pram at six months old to watch its first ever dress rehearsal. Now, as Sleek the Mouse burst onto the kitchen dresser forty minutes into the first half, Katherine nudged me and whispered, ‘Dad, shall we go and get my ice cream now?’ With precocious theatrical awareness she had realised the interval was coming up, and that by leaving our seats now, we could be first in the ice cream queue. This was not so much greed, or even boredom – it was commonsense born out of knowledge! I’m relieved to report that being exposed frequently to her father’s endeavours didn’t put Katherine off theatre for life. She now works for the Society of London Theatre, promoting West End theatre through admirable events such as Kids Week.
In those days, children’s entertainments, like their adult counterparts, almost always had an interval. It seemed natural to take a half-way break in the storytelling and give the actors as well as the audience a chance to stretch their legs and go to the loo. And, let’s face it, it was the theatre’s chance to make a few bob selling ice creams. With a children’s show, the bar takings are minimal, so ice cream sales are important. In the United States, however, the tradition of an intermission, as they call it, is less prevalent. This is partly because the Americans have always believed that a child’s attention span is low, and that plays for them should last no more than an hour, without a break. This is why I am currently performing a surgical operation on my play SPOT’S BIRTHDAY PARTY (featuring Eric Hill’s famous puppy), removing the interval and cutting it down a little, in readiness for its US première in Washington DC. I originally wrote and directed SPOT for the Oxford Playhouse ten years ago. Since then, theatre for the under fives has flourished in the UK, thanks to the work of companies like Tall Stories (THE GRUFFALO etc.), Oily Cart, Travelling Light, Theatre Rites and many others. And most productions for this age range now have no interval and last about 55 minutes. Theatres seem to have accepted the loss of ice cream revenue, because compensation is potentially provided by the fact that they can fit in two performances instead of one. Also, an interval for under fives is not very popular with the accompanying adults, who resent spending more money and keeping their small children amused for 20 minutes before re-settling them for Act 2. So my brief when adapting THE TIGER WHO CAME TO TEA and the forthcoming GUESS HOW MUCH I LOVE YOU was for a one-act play with no interval.
Interestingly, adult theatre these days now offers more plays without intervals. Sometimes this is because playwright or director doesn’t want the atmosphere interrupted – though, to be honest, I resented sitting some years ago in a stiflingly hot Young Vic witnessing Peter Brook’s HAMLET with no break!
The other day I saw Image Theatre’s enjoyable participatory version of A LITTLE PRINCESS. This is performed mainly in schools, but I saw it at the Epsom Playhouse. I had been told that the play’s running time was one hour, so I assumed there was no interval. Wrong! In Act 1, some children were chosen to be in the play. While two of the actors took them backstage to rehearse and put on their costumes, the other actors taught the audience the songs, then, after the interval, the one-hour play was performed, and there was definitely a warmth from the audience as they sang along, and the children on stage clearly had a good time too.
So intervals have become optional – except perhaps in the big arena shows, where intervals have become an excuse for a blatantly commercial merchandising operation. I recently witnessed a family show on ice where the interval was considerably longer than either Act 1 or Act 2. As the lights came up after less than half an hour’s entertainment, an army of sales assistants invaded the auditorium with their carts. They offered not just the humble ice creams, but very expensive spin-off items connected loosely with the show! Quite honestly, it appeared that, to the promoters, the interval was more important than the show. I found that rather depressing.
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