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The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner

Writer: Roy Williams

Director: Marcus Romner

Reviewer: Michael Gray

[rating:4]

Half a century since that angry young man Alan Sillitoe saw his seminal story filmed. It’s all about class, that curse of British society – the disparity of opportunity, and of aspiration, between rich and poor, haves and have-nots.

This is not a problem that has gone away, but society and its tribes have become more complex than we could have imagined back then. So Roy Williams has his work cut out to set his adaptation in 2012, in the shadow of the Olympics, the riots and Cameron’s coalition.

But though it has a very different feel from the original, a shift of perspective, perhaps, the anger is still there, and this hard-hitting production remains fiercely faithful to the passionate intensity of the short story. Director Marcus Romer is helped by a remarkably effective set and an excellent acting company.

Two massive screens form a backdrop; on them we see projected surreal images, the private thoughts in the mind of the runner. Through them we glimpse the world outside the YOI: family, friends, authority figures who then join the protagonist centre stage for key moments in his life story. And across the stage, a nine-foot treadmill, on which Colin Smith really runs while delivering his many monologues. He’s running the race in real time, with flashbacks and memories from within his mind. So no interval – we have to match his pace in this marathon.

He is played with very convincing attitude by Elliot Barnes-Worrell. We sense his frustration, the innate intelligence struggling to find expression. His final existential choice still has the power to shock and provoke debate.

Influences for the good in his life include his dying father, dreaming of socialism (Richard Pepple, who also gives us a loathsome fancy-man), and first girlfriend Kenisha, sincerely played by Savannah Gordon-Liburd. But not Stevens, an outwardly well-meaning man from the Home Office. Superbly characterised by Dominic Gately, he tries to get down with the troubled Colin, encouraging him to run, and then to race, until at the critical moment his true feelings are revealed. There is strong support also from Jack McMullen as a feckless friend, and Doreene Blackstock as Colin’s mum.

An impressive revival, even if the updating sometimes jarred. It’s hard to believe, in 2012, in an athletic competition between Borstal and Public School. Or in a cash box carelessly left in a branch of Greggs. The street patois elicited giggles from the many youngsters in the theatre, and this version will probably date faster that Sillitoe’s story. The central metaphor, though, is as telling as ever, with the troubled youngster running to escape, to find himself. “All that counts is what I think,” he tells us. “I’m a long-distance runner. That’s it.”

Runs until 20 October, then touring until 24 November

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