Review: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

The riots that swept through London, Nottingham and other cities in the summer of 2011 left many questioning what had happened to the next generation.

Some said that the rioters were criminals who had taken the opportunity to grab material possessions while others pointed to communities full of young people from chaotic homes without any hope for the future. It is against this modern backdrop that a new stage version of Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is set.

In this production, brought to Nottingham Playhouse by Pilot Theatre in association with York Theatre Royal, we hear Prime Minister David Cameron say that the acts committed by the rioters is ‘criminality pure and simple’ – and the play’s antihero, the defiant Colin Smith would no doubt agree with him.

Although Colin did not take part in the riots himself, he is later sent to a young offenders’ institute for stealing a cash box from Greggs in a playful nod to the Silliitoe’s novella which was published in 1959. Inside the institute Colin’s talent for running means he is soon noticed by a well-meaning official from the Home Office, who encourages him to take part in the upcoming cross-country race against boys from a public school. He is even allowed to leave the institution to go on long, unsupervised runs in the surrounding countryside. The race an opportunity for Colin to make a success of his life, find favour with the prison governor or even, as the Home Office official suggests, stick two fingers up to those public school boys.

But Colin is not interested in other people’s agendas. He doesn’t even run because he wants to win a race: he runs because this is the only time he is free from the heavy burdens he carries on his shoulders. The questions about Colin’s future are never resolved and there are no obvious solutions. It is only when he is running that he is able to live in the present and enjoy some kind of clarity.

In the play, the internal monologue of Sillitoe’s text was brought to life with an imaginative set design. Each scene was projected onto a 3D backdrop which enabled scenes to be transformed in quick succession, mirroring the protagonist’s fleeting thoughts. We also see Elliot Barnes-Worrell, who excels in the role of Colin, running on a treadmill,which gives the narrative a driving energy. His running and his thought patterns are intersected by scenes from his troubled background – but there is also an unadulterated joy in the physical sensation of running: the ‘Flip-flap, flip-flap, jog-trot, jog-trot, crunch-slap, crunch-slap’.

My only slight disappointment was that the play did not appear to be set in Sillitoe’s native Nottingham but instead in an unnamed London borough. While many young people in Nottingham emulate the slang of their London counterparts, it would have been great to hear some local dialect – and possibly a reference to the Broadmarsh Centre rather than the Westfield.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is on at the Playhouse until Saturday. For tickets visit the website.

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