YOU feel almost out of breath just watching Elliot Barnes-Worrell in Roy Williams’s reworking of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner but, despite him racing an estimated 4km per performance on a treadmill built into the stage, he barely breaks into a sweat.
The secret to winning, he reveals at the outset, is to be fast but not to rush – which is exactly what this 21st century version of Alan Sillitoe’s 1959 short story succeeds in achieving.
The fast-paced production transports likeable young delinquent Colin Smith to post-2011 riots London and in comparison makes the 1950s original seem rather quaint.
Yet in a damning indictment of today’s society, both boys share the same problems. They feel angry, isolated and have trapped themselves into fighting a battle against an unseen establishment – a battle they do not really understand.
While the politics, outline plot and some of the dialogue is Sillitoe’s, Williams has made the story belong to now.
His adaptation is bold. He has not allowed himself to be chained to the original, yet by freeing himself from its constraints he has been able to be truer to it.
It’s a slick production with a stylish set by Lydia Denno, who uses video projection to help tell Colin’s story in flashbacks during a race in which he is representing his young offenders institution.
Aside from demonstrating physical stamina, and the ability to talk and gesticulate while running, Barnes-Worrell makes a natural Colin – his cheekiness gradually slipping into frustration as he finds a way of taking a stand against his situation that will spite himself as much as those to whom he is sending a message.
Sillitoe’s no nonsense borstal governor has been replaced by the well-meaning Stevens – played as a naive but genuinely caring character by Dominic Gately – who thinks word association tests and a friendly attitude will help him get through to the boys.
Some of the points are a bit laboured – we don’t need to hear clip after clip of David Cameron banging on about rioters taking responsibility for their actions to question why the Government is shirking its own accountability for our country failing its young people – but Pilot Theatre’s production brings an immediacy to Sillitoe’s work that shows how relevant it continues to be more than half a century after it was written.