I remember being extremely moved by Tony Richardson's film version of Alan Sillitoe's story, "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner," when I saw it during my college years. It was one of the great British realistic "angry man" films of the early sixties. The soundtrack had that British imperial hymn, "Jerusalem" playing as the boys in this youth prison dismantled gas masks from World War II. This was a story of alienation of a working class youth in a class-bound society that was now in its postwar, post-Empire hangover. What could a young man of no position do but find a way to rebel? There's a good bit of existentialism in the story. If everything is meaningless, all one can do is assert oneself, even in an absurd, self-destructive way. The anti-hero of this story finds his only joy in running alone, revelling in his isolation. The same is true of the Black protagonist in British playwright Roy Williams's updating of Sillitoe's story. His Colin, like Sillitoe's, is above all a loner. He didn't participate in the recent riots in his area. He doesn't get along with his mother or her boyfriend, though he remembers his father, a bus driver and ardent socialist. He is allowed to run on his own at this youth prison because he is being groomed to win a cross-country race against a representative of a posh boy's school nearby. He will be the symbol of some kind of victory of the agencies of British society against the old class system. Though the victor, he refuses to cross the finish line. He has proved that he is the better runner, but he refuses to be used to validate a system he despises. Of course, his act of self assertion changes nothing and he will be treated like a pariah in the prison, but he has briefly thumbed his nose at the society he hates. Some of the language has been changed, but the story is basically the same. We don't get the same sense of the dreariness of the prison or the world from which Colin came that we had in Richardson's film. As it must be, the play is more about people than environment.
I can't say whether the story translates to the experience of contemporary youth. The gap between rich and poor is enormous in the U.K. as it is here, and young people face bleak prospects. I'm not sure that the class system has anywhere near the same resonance now. Money is the measure of position in England as it is here and much of the richest people in London are from other countries. Sillitoe's story is so imbued with existentialism and a specific kind of postwar alienation that it still seemed of a different period than its current contemporary setting.
The play has been given an excellent production at the subterranean Atlantic Theater Stage 2. Leah C. Gardiner's staging is deft, using moveable wire fences with backing so scenes can be projected on them. Her staging is fluid and the pacing seems just right for this story. Sheldon Best gives a virtuoso performance as Colin, the angry young man. Through most of the evening, he has to run in place while delivering long soliloquies. He's obviously in great shape, actually too great physical shape for this poor kid (who can forget the scrawny Tom Courtenay in the film?), but he capture's Colin's confused anger and his love of running as his only freedom. The rest of the cast is uniformly good.
I was impressed by this production. It's my problem that I can't get the movie out of my head.
THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER. Atlantic Theater Company Stage 2. January 10, 2014.