The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is an iconic title, a subject that most people think they remember, but it’s not a story that translates well to other media. So much happens within Colin Smith’s head in the course of the race that symbolises his discovery of selfhood that Alan Sillitoe’s original transferred uneasily to film and now works sporadically on stage. Though I found much to admire in Pilot Theatre’s production, I was never really involved, but fortunately it seemed to get a much more positive reaction from Pilot’s prime target audience of teens and twenties.
Roy Williams’ version retains the existential core of the story: Colin Smith, a youth involved in petty crime, is sent to a Young Offenders’ Institution, finds himself in long-distance running at which he excels. But what should he do when the authority figures (who have given him privileges, but whom he despises) enter him for a prestigious race which he is unwilling to lose, but equally unwilling to win for the glory of the Institution?
Everything else, however, has changed. This is not Sillitoe’s blue-colour traditionalist Midlands society, but 2012 London, multi-racial, in the shadow of recent riots. Somehow David Cameron, speechifying smugly on television, seems a flabbier opponent that the decades of entrenched tradition Sillitoe’s characters were smothered by.
In one respect Pilot’s version stays close to the original. In Marcus Romer’s production the set consists of a 6 metre long treadmill backed by screens, with Lydia Denno and Mark Beasley’s designs usually reflecting the course of the race. And Colin (Elliott Barnes-Worrell) runs the race and recalls how he got there and discovers who he is – just as Sillitoe first wrote. Barnes-Worrell, himself a distance runner, is remarkable, finding common ground with the 1959 working-class Nottingham lad in his exhilaration at the freedom of running and developing his 2012 urban character with increasing power.
Other characters inter-act with Colin in two ways: interjecting memories and reactions to the race from behind the screens (almost always very effective) and in inserted playlets which lack the same impact until the dramatic late scene between Colin and Dominic Gately’s “I’m-on-your-side” authority figure. Savannah Gordon-Liburd is pitch-perfect as Kenisha, Colin’s wise girlfriend, and Doreene Blackstock and Richard Pepple convince as his mother and her boorish new lover, but not all characters come over as strongly.