Alan Sillitoe's 1959 short story gave a new voice to a new type of person: white, working class and angry. Its film adaptation three years later provided the formidable Tom Courtenay with his first big break in the title role of the young borstal boy at odds with all about him.
So it seems appropriate that this Pilot Theatre production should fire the starting pistol on another new exciting talent in the form of Elliot Barnes-Worrell whose extraordinary performance as banged-up Colin Smith is a glorious tour de force of pent up rage.
What makes it all the more remarkable is that for the 90 minutes he is on stage, anchoring every moment of the drama around him, Barnes-Worrell is running. And not just jogging, but really going for it. It is estimated that he completes an average of 3,000 meters during the course of the play, pounding away on a specially-designed treadmill.
And when he is not doing that he is stretching or doing press ups whilst delivering his lines in an urban patois that is at all times not just clear but viscerally engaging. Much of the time the young actor is competing against the mechanical whirr of the device. At first it seems like an annoying distraction but rapidly becomes synonymous with the intensity of his inner thoughts as he runs.
Playwright Roy Williams sticks faithfully to the outline of the original story but brings it brilliantly bang up to date. Rather than set in the white east Midlands industrial heartlands of Sillitoe’s youth, it is transferred to London. Colin is a young black man, dropped out of school, scarred by the death of his bus driver father and wounded by his mother’s determination to get on with her life afresh after her partner’s long illness.
His ill-fated flirtation with petty crime – the robbery of a Gregg’s bakery in another clever update – takes place amidst the background of last summer’s riots. The disembodied voice of David Cameron outlining his vision of the way others should live their lives is relayed at strategic moments to powerful effect.
Colin finds freedom through running and eventually a form of rebellion against the forces that seek to shape him. Alan Sillitoe died in 2010. Like the original, there is a strong message on class and our perennially broken society but it is never preachy or obviously made.
York Theatre Royal to 29 September then on tour.