Review: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

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York Theatre Royal

Sometimes a performance can be described as muscular, energetic, powerful.

Elliot Barnes-Worrell, over five punishing kilometres, makes any future use of those adjectives redundant hyperbole. How? By turning in a performance that is all of those things, literally.

Not only is it a heartfelt, angry, singular performance, but by actually running approximately five kilometres on a brilliant, ingenious set that incorporates a strip of floor that becomes a treadmill during the performance, he makes it also a stunning physical feat.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner was Alan Sillitoe’s cry of anguish at the lack of opportunity and the sheer injustice of life as a white, working class young man in 1950s Britain.

York-based Pilot Theatre has worked with playwright Roy Williams, formerly a collaborator on the show Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads, on this adaptation and made it startlingly relevant. Sillitoe’s Britain was a place run by an Old Boy’s network, a place where opportunity came only if you were born to the right family and class. For Sillitoe’s 1950s, read Williams’s 2012 Britain.

Colin Smith becomes a disenfranchised young black man who finds himself in a youth offenders’ institute through a series of events that feel beyond his control. Not that Williams gives his Colin Smith an easy run – we’re clear that had he made different decisions, there would have been different consequences, so he takes his share of the blame. The finger of blame, in this production directed by Pilot’s Marcus Romer is pointed at both Colin and the system that narrowed his options.

A talent for running, discovered while he is incarcerated, leads Colin to represent the institution in a long distance race. Dominic Gately, as the politically correct veneered Stevens is typically brilliant, but there isn’t a weakness in the cast in this intelligent, bold and angry new work.