Review: A new star is running the show

20 Sep 2012 @ 10.51 am
| Entertainment

Play: The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner
Venue: York Theatre Royal, Wednesday, September 19

How far would you go for your art? Some claim to go that extra yard. And boastful souls will insist they go that extra mile.

Elliot Barnes-Worrell can dismiss such efforts with a shrug. Last night he went nigh-on two miles for his art. And he’ll do the same tonight. And every night (plus the occasional matinee) for at least a couple of months.

Barnes-Worrell plays Colin in Pilot Theatre’s new production of The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner. For much of the night he is running on a treadmill, while interacting with friends, family, authority.

For some actors walking and talking at the same time is hard enough to master, as any viewer of Hollyoaks will testify. The fact that Barnes-Worrell ran, acted his trainers off and projected with enough power that his words reached the back row of the dress circle in digital clarity gives some clue as to his technical achievement.

But there was much more to it than that. Here was a cracking central performance, bouncing with broody frustration. He not only reanimated that museum piece, the Angry Young Man of 1950s British literature, but made him relevant to Cameron’s Britain.

Elliot Barnes-Worrell stars as Colin. Photographs: Karl Andre Photography for Pilot Theatre
In fact, our acclaimed Prime Minister was there too, his platitudes about how he would fix “broken Britain” played out on Colin’s television. It’s hard not to despair when you realise that Alan Sillitoe wrote the original short story in a country riven with inequality and ruled by an Eton and Oxford-educated PM.

Half a century on and privilege still rules, while the gap between haves and have-nots is wider than ever. At least in the Fifties Colin could have got a job, whether he wanted one or not; that choice is denied for the Colins of today.

The main plot is the same. Colin gets sent down for theft, where he is singled out for his running ability by the prison governor. He is entered in a race which, if he wins, will bring glory to the authorities.

While training, Colin recalls the key episodes in his life. Central are his relationships with his bus driver dad and his mum’s new boyfriend Trevor (both characters played with great dexterity by Richard Pepple).

His best mate Jase was brought to life with sparky comic timing by Jack McMullen. Dominic Gateley added an out-of-his-depth poignancy to what might have been the entirely unsympathetic role of prison guard Stevens. Bossy mum (Doreene Blackstock) and smart girlfriend Kenisha (Savannah Gordon-Liburd) do well with their lower-key roles – but this is an examination of modern masculinity.

Prison guard Stevens (Dominic Gately) appeals to Colin

Roy Williams‘ adaptation drew out the gulf between Colin and his father’s generation, aghast at last summer’s riots, while the youngsters’ conversations fizzed with street credibility.

One disappointment: Williams set the play in London. An alienating force on the original Colin was living in a northern England ignored or belittled by the Home Counties. Given that this was a revival by a Yorkshire company, and that the UK is more London-centric than ever, it seems a double shame that the action was placed within a bus ride of the Westfield Shopping Centre.

Jase (Jack McMullen), Sandra (Alix Ross), Kenisha (Savannah Gordon-Liburd) and Colin

Skilfully directed by Marcus Romer, the production emitted an intense, controlled energy. Admittedly, with no interval, it did flag around the halfway mark – a case of The Bum-Numbingness Of The Long-Seated Critic – but Colin’s sad, brave stand at the end again commanded the audience’s full attention.

Special mention must go to the ingenious set designed by Lydia Denno, which worked brilliantly. But this is Elliot Barnes-Worrell’s show. His acting career is up and running.