The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Alan Sillitoe, adapted for the stage by Roy Williams
Pilot Theatre and York Theatre Royal
York Theatre Royal

Elliot Barnes-Worrall as Colin Smith Credit: Pilot Theatre; Karl Andre Photography
Elliott Barnes-Worrall as Colin Smith; Dominic Gately as Stevens Credit: Pilot Theatre; Karl Andre Photography
Elliot Barnes-Worrell, Savannah Gordon-Liburd, Alix Ross, Jack McMullen Credit: Pilot Theatre; Karl Andre Photography

The film version of Alan Sillitoe's short story Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner was released fifty years ago, almost to the day. In Roy Williams's powerful new adaptation under Marcus Romer's excellent direction, most of the original text is retained in familiar forms, yet the modern shine given to it highlights the tale's relevance for today's audiences in the current political and social environment.

One should not approach the production expecting a nostalgic take on the film. In Williams's treatment of the setting, we see a young black man in an urban environment—the action has been transplanted to London in the wake of last year's riots, rather than the industrial provinces of the original. He's still Colin Smith, though this version of the character insists that it should be pronounced with a long 'O'.

Throughout the masterly adaptation there are nice touches such as this, so the bakery at which Smith commits the petty theft which gets him sent to a young offenders' institute becomes a Greggs, and characters tell each other to 'believe' and exclaim 'oh my days'. It's a plausible youth voice which nonetheless maintains the sense and feel of Sillitoe's original. Williams, of course, has previous form with adaptations, and with the depiction of disaffected youth on stage. But he's not merely treading water here—this feels like a fresh, timely piece with something new to say to all generations.

As the show begins, Elliot Barnes-Worrell, as Colin, begins to run. And he hardly lets up—the custom-made treadmill built into the set is used frequently and to great effect, not distracting from the action but enabling us to sink, with Barnes-Worrell, into the rhythm of the individual, the loneliness of the title. Lydia Denno's set enables this wonderfully, with its multi-function backdrop of screens working brilliantly with the projected video and flexing and changing just enough to suggest different settings without interrupting the flow of the piece.

It soon becomes clear that Romer and Williams have made the decision to set all of the action over the time of the climactic race in which Colin takes part, with scenes and monologues depicting in flashback the events that have led him here. It's another excellent decision which again works with the original while making the experience uniquely theatrical.

Much of the credit for the production's success must also go to Barnes-Worrell, a recent Central graduate who walks the fine line between being a likeable stage presence and retaining the inscrutable nature of Sillitoe's creation. What he creates is a fine 21st-century take on the character: disaffected and confused, flawed but wanting to do something to stand up to his frustrating circumstances, the only thing he knows for certain is that he loves long distance running.

Barnes-Worrell is constantly on stage—often exercising—for the full 90-minute show, and the physical feat is only one impressive aspect of his performance. He's also supported well by the rest of the ten-strong cast, with Dominic Gately as Stevens, the prison officer / government representative who is keen for Colin to take part in the long distance event. Like all the characters, Stevens's motives are (deliberately) never fully clear, and Gately takes on the sometimes gut-wrenching shifts in rhetoric and engagement with intelligence and authority. Richard Pepple doubles brilliantly as the ghostly but loving presence of Colin's dad as well as the later usurper who Colin's mum (Doreene Blackstock) moves in to the family home not long after the father's death. The young cast portraying Colin's peer group all go to make up a strong ensemble.

Early in the show, David Cameron's words on 'interaction' and 'the Big Society' echo out, leaving us in no doubt that the empty rhetoric of politicians and other authority figures contributes a great deal to the numbness behind most young people's engagement with the world. Without proposing a solution, or suggesting that such a thing would be simple, this production opens a forum for political and social debate without preaching to the audience or dumbing down the issues behind the real problems facing Britain's youth today. I'm sure that Sillitoe would have approved.

Reviewer: Mark Smith