This is an excellent adaptation of Alan Sillitoe's short story for the stage. Its central character, Colin, is not unlike Sillitoe more famous creation, Arthur Seaton, a hero and an anti-hero who refuses to take either the side of authority or of its opposition. Colin is bright and insightful and in many ways a nice lad but one who is made to feel unvalued, with no reason to be good or to obey the rules. After being caught stealing, he is sent down to a Young Offender Institution but inside his talent for running is discovered and he is entered into a race against a posh public school where it is hoped he will prove that there is untapped potential in those that society has discarded.
Roy Williams has done a brilliant job in updating the story to modern times without losing the spirit of the original. Colin is mixed race in this adaptation which is set just after last year's riots. The language and cultural references have been brought bang up to date and touches of humour have been injected.
Essentially a story about a young man finding his place in the world, Williams has perceptively made it address the modern debate about youth and class. The chasm of experience between Colin and the boys of the public school remind us of the detachment of our Old Etonian leaders in government. There are audio clips of David Cameron talking about the riots and 'Broken Britain'. The zero tolerance approach to crime is balanced by the character of Stevens, a 'do-gooder' who wants to expose the injustices suffered by working class people.
Colin finds each of these extremes equally unattractive. The play mixes formative episodes from Colin's home life with his time in the Institution and the race itself. Despite the jumping chronology, there is a single story unfolding which takes you right into Colin's mind. His feelings are ambiguous, with a complex tension between his love of running and happiness at being appreciated on the one hand and his resolution not to be co-opted to anyone's agenda on the other. How he acts to resolve this conflict is startling and brilliant.
The set is cleverly designed with two huge surfaces in the background onto which scenery is projected and a treadmill built into the floor, allowing Colin to run. In fact Elliot Barnes-Worrell, playing Colin, runs for most of the performance and must cover quite a distance during the show. The treadmill is used creatively in some scenes, for example when Colin and his girlfriend are walking side by side and verbally sparring each overtakes the other as they get the upper hand. The only problem is that the treadmill is quite noisy and was apparently interfering with the actors' radio mikes, making it hard to hear in places; a problem which will hopefully have been fixed after the first night.
Barnes-Worrell plays Colin brilliantly and is well supported by a superb cast. Much effort is being made locally to keep the memory and work of Alan Sillitoe alive and this adaptation of a story written more than half a century ago is a telling example of how relevant his work is today.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner runs at the Nottingham Playhouse until Saturday 27 October 2012.
Saturday 27 October is Alan Sillitoe Day, a celebration of the works of the Nottingham writer, with events throughout the day at the Nottingham Contemporary.