One-act wonders

A growing trend for shorter plays could be just the way to attract new audiences

Theatregoers might once have thought that an hour after curtain-up was the perfect time for an interval gin and tonic. But today's audiences are just as likely to find themselves back in the bar for good, the play finished and final bows taken, thanks to the growing trend for one-act plays clocking in at 60 minutes or so.

Where brief writing by Pinter, Beckett and, more recently, Caryl Churchill and Martin Crimp once looked groundbreaking and adventurous, new plays lasting two or three hours are now the exception. The Young Vic offers Debbie Tucker Green's 45-minute-long Dirty Butterfly. At the Bush Theatre, Neil LaBute's Helter Skelter and Land of the Dead (reviewed by Andrew Bill en in the NS of 28 January) form a pair of playlets that together last just under an hour, and the Bush's next production, Mike Bartlett's Artefacts, is only just over that. The National Theatre is about to open Baby Girl, DNA and The Miracle, a trio of plays lasting roughly 55 minutes each; either two of the plays or all three will run each evening.

But size doesn't matter, according to the writers and directors behind these sub-60-minute pieces. Anthony Banks, who commissioned the National's short plays, says: "The size comes from the impact of the piece - a great play is a great play, no matter how long it is. Most two-and-a-half-hour standards that I sit through now, I do find myself thinking, 'Just get on with it.' There's so much flab in the text in comparison to these shorter plays I've got used to by working with."

Dennis Kelly, the playwright whose DNA presents both a crime and a cover-up in less than an hour, says: "The instinct to not mess around is a very healthy one. When you're writing so tightly, it forces everything to justify its inclusion in the play. Sometimes there's an idea I want to explore, and then I see that I've written everything I want to say in the first 30 pages. So it's great if theatres are prepared to stage just that, and you don't have to pad it out with a whole lot of extras."

Some see shorter plays as a pragmatic way for theatres to compete with the huge range of other entertainment options available. "The perfect post-work prescription" is how Paines Plough describes its pleasingly alliterative "A Play, A Pie, A Pint" nights, an annual season that does what it says on the packet, offering audiences in London and Glasgow the three Ps for £10, in a 6pm time slot, aiming to be a warm-up for a night out. The performances regularly sell out.

Banks agrees that plays have to fit into today's busier lives. "Back in the 1950s it wouldn't have been like this - there was simply less to do," he argues. "Sitting in the theatre for three hours would have been better than sitting at home with nothing to do but play cards."

Shorter plays may also allow theatres to attract audiences used to fast-paced stimulation from television and films. The National's plays are part of its Connections programme, which commissions ten new pieces a year, to be performed by school groups; three of these each year are staged at the National by professional casts.

Banks says: "The audiences we're aiming at are used to seeing stories told very briefly, in small chunks, and writers are getting used to the idea that you can tell a whole story that swiftly, too. Going to the theatre doesn't need to be an endurance test: you don't want people to feel guilty if they don't go, like it's church or the gym. If we can make it exciting, then people will actively want to come."

And Mike Bartlett, whose My Child at the Royal Court last year was a bruising, 45-minute exploration of the lengths to which a divorced father will go to get access to his son, believes that film and television have had a wider stylistic influence on the stage. "There's no point in trying to achieve the kind of naturalism that you might get in a documentary or TV drama," he argues. "The nature of theatre has changed to emphasise what is unique about it - you put yourself in a room with other people, and something happens to you. You don't get that elsewhere. So my instinct is to pare down the dialogue to really get to the core of it, to make that experience as powerful as possible. Playing it slow now has to be a conscious decision, rather than the default."

Neil LaBute, whose savage pair of plays about collapsing relationships at the Bush barely gives the audience a chance to breathe, agrees. "Writing short lets you experiment with very intense devices you probably couldn't maintain for a whole evening, and which might not work on TV," he says. "You can write a monologue, or have two people addressing the audience rather than each other, for instance - it's a high-wire act, and it might not work over a hundred pages, but it's great when it's brief."

However, Jeanie O'Hare, literary manager for the Royal Shakespeare Company, believes some writers of brief plays are selling audiences short: "When a play is very punchy, and all about rhythm and atmosphere, you may only have time to muse on the meaning of the play afterwards. A lot of newer writers are leaving things more ambiguous - they aren't giving themselves enough stage time to unpack their world-view and really draw out the wider implications of what they are presenting. The world is in a mess, and our writers have a responsibility to take a long, hard look at what is going on and comment on it, and that might take a bit more time."

O'Hare hopes that the present generation of new playwrights will begin to write longer plays as they grow in confidence and win the prestige and resources to get them staged. For the time being, however, a short attention span is no longer an excuse for avoiding the theatre.

"Baby Girl", "DNA" and "The Miracle" are at the Cottesloe, London SE1, from 28 February to 10 April. "Dirty Butterfly" is at the Young Vic, London SE1, from 9-16 February. "Artefacts" is at the Bush, London W12, 20 February to 22 March

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Now it gets really dirty