All of It lasts for just 45 minutes, all in. So in this time of chat about plays and length and ‘value for money’ (hilariously, Mark Lawson’s recent Guardian piece on the topic calculates cost-per-minute) I’d like to make it clear that I’m not someone who automatically leaps at the ruthless efficiency of a fashionably short play. I like long plays – plays you can sink into like an old sofa, plays that get you home at midnight, plays that leave you late for work, with undereyes as grey as the shedded skin cells that encrust your office keyboard, grimy and complex and layered as the stories you met with the night before.
The last Alistair McDowall play I saw, X, took its time. It transported you into the insulated cabin of a spaceship whose inhabitants were dying, one by one, an alien lifeform looming outside. Its generous two hours and fifteen minute span stretched out and became huge: in space, time is an elastic concept. All of It is substantially shorter and very much earthbound, but like one of those schlocky science-museum simulators, it has this ability to travel huge distances in its small allotted interval of time and space.
If you’re going to compare All of It to something, it would have to be Beckett’s Not I, which came to the Royal Court in Lisa Dwan’s admirably speedy version last year. Only, surprisingly given McDowall’s track record, it’s more ordinary in form and subject. It’s a first-person chronological monologue that follows a woman who babbles her way from infant incoherence from teenage sex-obsession to marriage to middle-aged discontent to deathbed regrets. First, she pronounces ‘Red Red Red’ with the enormous satisfaction that only a toddler can take in a one-syllable word, then she spells out the darkest fears of her teenage years, her sense of isolation as a working-class woman at university, her loneliness as an older woman, her surprise late-in-life fulfilment at a library poetry reading. Patterned through it all is the terror of death. This play feels like an excuse for an actor to do wonderful things with their lungs and soft palette and mouth and Kate Flynn really delivers – no more so than when she’s appending descriptions of her child-self’s nice new green coat with the hissed syllable “dead”, the awareness of her own mortality pronounced unwittingly, slipping like beads of sweat into her harried inner monologue.
Stream-of-consciousness subjectivity is something that lends itself to looking backwards. Look at examples as varied as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway thinking of her lost girlhood and Fleabag lamenting her dead best friend and you’ll see subjectivity’s potential for the embedding and layering of memories. All of It is relentlessly forwards forwards forwards, only devoting the smallest of moments to wistfulness or regret. Action, not reflection. The form feels like one big reminder that life happens at remorseless speed. There’s no time to catch your breath: it’s only afterwards that you feel the terror of an ordinary life that’s gone in the shortest of intervals, little left behind.
As a horror-theatre play about the root of all human fears, your own mortality, All of It is very successful. It’s also very successful as a reason for Flynn to show off her craft – like one of those small and immaculate figurines that 18th century dressmakers would fashion, to show their skills were just as potent in condensed form. But if its observations (being a teenage girl is embarrassing! Older women are invisible!) gain universality from their familiarity, they also lose staying power. McDowall depicts a woman who feels so ordinary that she slips from your memory as she slips out of existence.
Memory isn’t a filing cabinet, where all experiences are dutifully stored, allowed to mildew and get rat-nibbled at equal rate. Instead, it’s something that follows our cues, hoarding up moments that are marked by surprise, emotion, pain, intensity of focus. Perhaps length of play is irrelevant; it’s about whether and how something strikes our brains as worthy of preservation. Some things about All of It felt a little bit familiar, to me; those specific beats of growing up that are endlessly trodden over and mined in conversation as well as plays, books and stories. But even if the specifics are already fading, something about the intensity of Flynn’s furiously alive syllables, running uncontrollably like water, makes it memorable: somehow, I can’t forget it.
All of It is on at Royal Court until 15th February. More info and tickets here.