The Lavishness of the Long-Distance Projector

Pilot Theatre’s adaptation of Alan Stillitoe’s 1959 classic is a fine example of both writing and directing, but the biggest achievement of all is the stunning technical presentation.

When an earth-shattering news story shakes the entire nation, the whole nation reacts to it. Journalists fill up pages of newspaper, politicians work it into Conference speeches, and not wanting to be left out, play writers respond by writing gazillions of similar plays about it. Ever since August last year, the London Riots are all the rage, and so far we’ve probably had hits such as the modern gritty urban drama This is your Big Society Cameron, the modern gritty urban drama We Wuz Tired of Being Hassled by da Pigs Innit, and the modern gritty urban drama Concrete and Piss (okay, that last one is a fictitious title coined by Charlie Brooker, but I’m sure we’ll find a play with that name if we look hard enough). Now Pilot Theatre are weighing in with their stage adaptation of Alan Stillitoe’s classic short story, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, transformed into a modern gritty urban drama about the London Riots. But don’t let this put you off – it’s good.

Roy Williams transplants this story from its original setting of a 1950s borstal to the present day. There is one overriding observation: you wouldn’t guess you were watching an adaptation if you didn’t know. It makes it look like the contemporary post-riot setting was how the story was written all along. But whilst many so-called adaptations butcher the originals, in this script the key events are the same. Colin Smith (Elliot Barnes-Worrell) is a young petty criminal doing time, discovered to be an extraordinary runner. The story takes place over the course of the run, flashing back to his time behind bars and the events that led him behind bars: his only caring relative, his father, dead from a terminal illness; a mother splashing out this insurance money on a new fancy man; choosing boring unemployment over boring menial jobs; and eventually arrest following a stupid attempt to rob a bakery. If he wins the race, the Governor will look good, and Colin will be set up for a glittering sports career when he gets out. Everybody wins, huh?

What Roy Williams brings, however, is a very convincing portrayal of modern alientated youth. Now, I don’t  subscribe to this notion that any prime minister with a public school education is automatically out of touch with the working class, but try telling that to two bored teenagers in a London sink estate watching an ex-Etonian on TV talking in a posh voice about disaffected young people. In this version, Colin (now pronounced the same way as Colin Powell) is partly led astray by less sensible friend Jase (Mike in the original), who took to the streets in the riots whilst Colin, under the watchful eye of his father, stayed away. When you hear Jase’s version of events, the idea that the riots is an uprising against an all-controlling system almost sounds reasonable.

But the biggest achievement of all in this play is the outstanding technical achievement of Lydio Denno and Mark Beasley. Pilot Theatre use two walls and projectors to form every scene in the story: running track, Colin’s home, streets in sink estates, and prison interiors. But it’s not just electronic wizardry at work here. Digital projectors are probably the thing that has changed the most in 21st-century theatre, progressing from that thing which does Powerpoint to a very versatile device which can project images to pinpoint precision over a wide area (as anyone who saw Crown of Light at Lumière can tell you). But that alone does not make good theatre. Over-do fancy moving images and you may as well stop wasting time on stage and make a film instead.

No, the thing that makes this stand out is the seamless integration with the acting on stage. Much credit needs to go the Marcus Romer’s directing, because the cast pull every trick in the book to make the of the set. It’s not just a background for a projector, it’s got frames that form doors and hatches. There is a conveyor on the floor so that Colin can run and stay on stage, but this is integrated into the rest of the play so that numerous scenes take place where characters are casually walking and talking. The only technical annoyance was the they conveyor belt was a bit noisy, but that is a very small issue.

The only bit that didn’t quite work out was the ending. In the book, Colin stop running just before the finish line and allows the others to pass, making the Governor look stupid and losing himself all the favours he earned. The same ending takes place in this version – and changing the ending would be like ending The Titanic with the ship reaching New York in record time – but it’s wasn’t quite believable. The problem is that in the original, Colin may have become the governor’s pet, but he grew increasingly resentful of the way that other inmates were being punished and humiliated in the rather nasty borstal, and so he decided it was a game he didn’t want to play. In this adaptation, the prison treats the inmates quite reasonably. This might be more realistic than a 21st-century borstal, but what motive did it leave Colin to lose the race? I picked up a poke in the eye for authority in general and an overall sense of apathy, but not enough to explain why he’d throw away a promising future as a professional sportsman. It was a pity to have this anti-climax after such a good beginning.

But this should not distract from what this relatively unknown theatre company has achieved. When you consider how much the West End relies on expensive overblown flashy staging that adds little to the play, it’s refreshing to see how effective technical effects can be without pricing people out of theatre. It was a good all-round effort from everyone involved, and York Theatre Royal must be very pleased of their association with Pilot Theatre. There are more projects in the pipeline, so let’s look forward to what they produce next.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner continues touring until the 24th November.