Run, Rebel: runaway hit

Pilot Theatre have a track record of strength in so many areas. Their collaboration with Manjeet Mann in the latest of their young adult adaptations has once more pushed their achievements to perfection.

In all of my theatre blog coverage, few groups have had such a long and consistently good run as Pilot Theatre. My equivalent to five stars is the Ike Award, which I first gave for an adaptation of The Season Ticket (co-produced with Northern Stage). The second one went to Noughts and Crosses, and that was the first in a series of adaptations of young adult novels that has been doing well. We are now on the the fourth. Run, Rebel is a book by Manjeet Mann. It is about Amber Rai, who dreams of being a runner, but her conservative father thinks it time she was married off. It is Mann herself who has adapted the play – and what do you know, Pilot Theatre has done it yet again. For the first time ever, a theatre company has scooped a third one of these:

There are two things I’ve noted Pilot Theatre for: firstly, their innovative approach to staging, and secondly, their ethos for super-diverse casting which, in my opinion, gets it right. Now I’ve noticed a third thing they’re good at: openings. You can read so much into the characters before they’ve spoken a single word. In The Bone Sparrow, for instance, we saw from Jimmie’s first brief appearance she’s lonely and a misfit. Here (thanks to director Tessa Walker), the first glance shows us the family dynamics of the Rai family, with Amber’s headstrong optimism contrasted by her meeker and passive mother Surinder. Amber only has to say about her sister Ruby “She doesn’t live with us any more” to know there’s a lot more to this. As for her father Harbans, we know there’s going to a problem here – but it doesn’t exactly scream “snarling wife-beater” to you. We will learn more about this later.

However, blink and you’ll miss it. The next few scenes depicts life at school that is … perfectly normal. There are two things that currently concern teenage Amber. The first is whether she should listen to her PE teacher who thinks she’s got what it takes to become a professional runner. The second is whether the boy she likes feels the same way about her – but David and his family spent most of the summer with Tara and her family, Tara being her other best friend. As far as they’re all concerned, the only thing out of the ordinary is that she has a dad who’s “a bit strict”. But this is no ordinary tale of a teenage girl trying to persuade her dad to let her stay out later. Harbans is saying people will talk if she’s not married soon. And – more frighteningly, he reminds Amber of the girl over the road who came to a bad end because she brought shame on her family.

Quite a lot of the story revolves around how the outside world responds to this. Tara and David obviously have no idea what’s going on. Teachers have an inkling that something’s not right, but Amber won’t let on what it is. Too often, however, there are people who’ve seen perfectly well what’s happening but take the path of least resistance and not get involved. Only one person on the outside truly gets the measure of what’s happening; luckily for Amber, she is very clued up and her help will prove a godsend. But when the story stands or falls on the plausibility of the wider world not noticing the forced marriage and veiled threats of honour killings, the message isn’t a comfortable one: some people didn’t know, but others chose not to notice.

The really brave decision in the story, however, was the character of Harbans. The easy way to have written him would have been to make him a patriarchal tyrant (bit like George Khan comes across in East is East if you miss the subtleties). That story would have still worked, but it would not have been nearly as interesting as what’s done here. It becomes quite clear early on in the play that he needs help. We never find out what the transition was between arriving in England as an optimistic young man and the disillusioned man he is today, but it’s clear he’s already given up. He spends most of his time drinking, and he’s too proud to learn how to read and write in English. When he turns up drunk to a DWP meeting with Amber mediating over a benefit cut, it’s clear how much Habran is his own worst enemy. Of course, it’s not just Habran who’s paying for his mistakes.

Pushpinder Chani’s performance is superb. For this to work, you have truly appreciate how desperately Harbans wants life to be different. The scene where he wants to dance with his family after hearing his favourite song on the radio is just heartbreaking. Unlike his East is East counterpart, where George stood to gain respect amongst his peers, Harbans has clearly lost all respect for himself, never mind from anyone else. This obsession with his daughters getting married seems to be little more than a misguided drive to keep one thing in his life how he was raised to expect it to be. Chani also plays Surinder’s husband. He isn’t a tyrant either; on the contrary, he’s a nice guy, supportive of both his wife and his sister-in-law’s running ambitions, and it hasn’t even crossed his mind Ruby might have been arm-twisted into marriage.

Jessica Kaur, too, puts in a stellar performance. There is one important rule for play-writing, especially those in fixed time-frames: why now? In this case: what’s caused Amber to stand up to her father now? Also also: why hasn’t she done this already? The answer is, once again, down to the path of least resistance. It’s not just the wider world keeping their heads down; Amber’s own sister and mother both chose capitulation over confrontation. But whilst Amber starts off on the same path, trying to evade confrontation rather than face it head-on, it is clear that she’s not the sort of person who’ll fold when it comes to the crunch. It is only if this is pulled off that you can believe that her mother and sister are finally inspired to join Amber in standing up for themselves.

You do need to be careful with this approach to abuse relationships in families, especially young adult fiction. Depiction is not endorsement; nevertheless, there is a widely-held rule (correctly, IMO) that for material aimed at younger viewers, any bad things that happen should be clearly condemned as bad. The correct call is made here. Even though it is possible to read Harbans sympathetically, even though in the end most of his threats are exposed as bluffs, he has done too much to be let off with a slap on the wrist. For someone like him, the price he pays is worse than arrest or prison. As for what happens after the play ends … well, my hunch is that in ten years’ time, Amber will be running her father’s life.

If I must pick fault with one thing, I thought the theatrical device over repeated lines got a bit tedious – I suspect this worked better in the book (where you can speed-read anything that’s too repetitive for you). But I really don’t care. Run Rebel is a strong production is so many areas, but the clincher is having the courage to explore an area few writers dare cover. There any many ways to say that abusive family relationships and forced marriages and honour killings are bad, but we already know that. What’s harder to explore is why anybody would behave this way. A young adult novel is the hardest place to write this, but Manjeet Mann pulled it off when few other dare even try. Pilot theatre have many strengths, but the partnership with this book and this writer give them my highest accolade for a third time.

Run, Rebel concludes its tour this Saturday at Belgrade Theatre Coventry.

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