Theatre Review: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner - York Theatre Royal (then tour) ✭✭✭✭

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

York Theatre Royal (then tour)

When Alan Sillitoe wrote his short story, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, back in the late 1950s he no doubt hoped that it would lose relevance over time but this brand new stage show, which combines the forces of Pilot Theatre Company and York Theatre Royal, sadly shows how little has changed in the intervening years. Roy William’s adaptation brings the action up-to-date, taking place in post-riots London, but a lot of the original remains as it finds a new home in the 21st century.

Fundamentally a story about how the voice of the under privileged classes is unheard as they are afforded little opportunity under the rule of the privileged, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is the tale of one man – but it speaks for many.

Colin (pronounced Co-lin) is serving his time having committed petty theft, breaking in to steal little more than a few sausage rolls from a branch of Greggs the bakers. Finding solitude in long distance running, his ability is spotted by the prison authorities who grant him extra freedoms in exchange for his participation in a race against the best the local public schools have to offer. His widely anticipated victory will be a demonstrable success for the penal system in general and the facility he is in and those who run it more specifically. Colin starts to question who he is really running for – himself or the people he despises.

As he runs, the words of Prime Minister David Cameron talking about broken Britain ring in his ear and his thoughts fill with how he got to that place as the audience is guided through a series of flashbacks.

Elliot Barnes-Worrell
Photo credit - Karl Andre Photography
To say this is predominantly a one man show with the rest of the cast providing cameo performances would be grossly unfair to the company. It is true however that Colin, played with impressive stamina and gusto by Elliot Barnes-Worrell, steals all of the limelight, never leaving the stage in the 85 minute run time of this single act production. A vast amount of his time is spent on the specially built 6m treadmill sunk into the raised stage as he powers through the race. Whilst many of us mere mortals would be gasping for air running somewhere in the region of the 2 miles distance he covers during each performance, this young actor breezes through it – taking all in his stride and keeping up a strong and powerful level of vocal projection.

The relationships between all of the characters in Colin’s world are all well drawn with nicely detailed performances from all of the company. Curtis Cole and Sean Sagar double up as prison bullies and the arresting Police Officers, nicely representing two opposing elements that both apply pressure on Colin who finds himself stuck in the middle. Jack McMullen, best known to fans of Waterloo Road as Finn Sharkey, adds some of the lighter moments in director Marcus Romer’s thought provoking piece.  Dominic Gately’s Stevens provides an interesting conundrum – does he truly care about the young inmate, is he interested solely in what he could personally gain from a victory for Colin, or are these two positions not incompatible with each other meaning that both men can gain from the runner’s success?

Lydia Denno’s set is a digital work of art. Creative projection allows the scenery to be changed at the press of a computer button, transporting audiences from the openness of the race to the grey world Colin has grown up in, a world with precious few chances. Imagery ranges for the realistic to the more surreal as we inhabit the world inside Colin’s mind and step between the recent past and the present.

This is a show that will leave you with more questions than answers: Are those not lucky enough to have been born with a silver spoon in their mouths just pawns in a game of power for the upper classes that lead our country?; What choices do we make that are truly our own? The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner weaves innovative design with passionate storytelling and social commentary. A powerful mix in a production that deserves to be anything but lonely.

4 stars out of 5 ✭✭✭✭

Review by James Eaglesfield

Tour Dates
York Theatre Royal 14 - 29 Sep 2012 
Birmingham Rep 2 - 6 Oct
Gala Theatre, Durham 9 - 13 Oct 
New Wolsey, Ipswich 16 - 20 Oct 
Nottingham Playhouse 23 - 27 Oct 
Liverpool Playhouse 30 Oct - 3 Nov 
The Brewhouse, Taunton 7 - 10 Nov 
Winchester Theatre Royal 13 - 17 Nov 
Lawrence Batley, Huddersfield 21 - 24 Nov