Is it ever OK to leave the theatre during the interval?

Following Robert Icke’s comments in ”The Stage” yesterday, Alun Hood considers this theatrical taboo

Is it ever ok to leave a production during the interval?
Is it ever ok to leave a production during the interval?
© B Rosen (Flickr)

Leaving at the interval? Hmmmmm. Tricky one. Do you forfeit your right to an opinion on the show in question or is it kudos to you for not wasting any more of your life in a dark room full of strangers?

I used to be extremely dismissive of anybody who made a run for it at half time but now I'm not so sure.

The internet is your friend not only when choosing what play to see but also (spoiler alert!) when checking out the actual plot of any given piece. While it is heartening to note that audience members genuinely are 'keeping the secrets' at the sell out Harry Potter plays in the West End, it is now normal to have read so much online about a show before going in that you almost feel like you've seen it before your bottom hits the red plush (or bench, if it's fringe). Therefore, if it gets to the interval and you're really not having a good time plus you know pretty much how the piece is going to unfold, is it really worth your time and effort to sit it out through the second half?

I felt I had to stay for act two despite the fact that nobody short of God could have salvaged the evening

A friend of mine who works in the industry, and who genuinely loves theatre, told me recently that he went to see a play produced by somebody he needed to keep on the right side of but, having seen a show every night that week and really not being enamoured with this one, found himself unable to hang in there past intermission. However, thanks to the power of Google, and after enduring the first half, he was able to later discuss the production authoritatively with aforementioned producer while also getting to enjoy one of the last summer afternoons with his family. Nice work.

I see a lot of theatre and genuinely try to find the best in what I'm looking at but a couple of months ago I had the misfortune to sit through an absolute disaster of a show in the West End. As I was there as an Olivier Awards judge I felt I had to stay for act two despite the fact that nobody short of God could have salvaged the evening. The friend I took had no such qualms however: we spent the interval standing at the end of our row talking about anything other than the theatrical horror we had just born witness to, and when the lights started to dim for the second half, her eyes widened, she grabbed my hand, she breathed "I love you, but I just can't do this. Call me, yeah?" and she was gone. I spent act two with teeth gritted in envy and having to endure ongoing sympathetic looks from the lady sitting next to me who clearly thought I'd just been dumped.

I sat through act two envying the free people out in the real world

I can count on one hand the number of times I have left at the interval, and three of those were medical emergencies, but I could happily have bailed out on many more occasions. The one I remember most vividly is the last West End revival of Waiting For Godot. It was a beautiful production: gorgeous set design, a cast led by Ian McKellen and the late, great Roger Rees. But, you know, it's still Beckett… you either get him or you don't, and I really don't. I was lucky enough to be offered complimentary matinee tickets and I took an actor friend who is a notorious interval flee-er who had never seen this particular play. Marvellous, I thought, we get to spend the day together, he can tick this play off his list and we can be in the pub by four.

Wrong wrong wrong. While I had spent most of the first half thinking about what I would have for dinner that night and wondering why Roger Rees looked hardly any older than when I saw him in the original production of The Real Thing back in 1982, my friend was getting quietly engrossed. I turned to him as the lights came up, fully expecting him to lead a charge to the exit, and he beamed "this is wonderful, we should definitely stay and see what happens". I refrained from screaming "It's Beckett! NOTHING is going to happen!!" and sat through act two envying the free people out in the real world, and making a grocery shopping list for the following week.

I recently saw an undeniably challenging but hugely rewarding new play where literally half of the dress circle left at half time. They missed a thought-provoking denouement but clearly didn't want to give up any more of their time. Ironically, the second half was a mere fifty minutes, whereas act one was a bum-challenging ninety. Their loss.

The late, much loved critic and theatre writer Sheridan Morley referred several times (in print!) to his leaving at the intervals of a pair of West End musicals he was reviewing. Despite applauding his honesty, I couldn't do that: I just think it's unfair to submit a critical analysis of any show that you haven't seen all of. I will always stick it out to the bitter end; sometimes baffled, sometimes frustrated, sometimes downright furious, but far more often than not, thrilled to be in the room.

Ultimately, I'll never feel fully comfortable talking about a show unless I've seen all of it. I've experienced a few things where the second half genuinely informed what had gone before the interval, and I would have been sorry not to have had the insight. As I become older and see more and more stuff, I am definitely getting over the long held opinion that just because it's on stage it must be worthwhile. Having said that, live theatre at its best is still the most exciting of all art forms.

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