Theatre Review: Running at speed

MARATHON GATE THEATRE LONDON

IT CERTAINLY revivifies the old theatrical cliche to say that Marathon is "enjoying a run" at the Gate. This powerfully suggestive comedy by the Italian dramatist, Edoardo Erba, follows a couple of young men as they train for the New York marathon.

The Greek runner in the myth at least had a message to deliver, but there's no utilitarian point to such athletics now. The punishing effort is inherently a metaphor for something else and theatre, with its bias toward the non- naturalistic image, is in a better position to bring this out than film.

In Mick Gordon's excellent production, the black set is featureless except for the parallel tracks of running machines on which the splendid company of two (Ciaran McMenamin and JD Kelleher) jog. By an absurd twist of fate, one of the actors originally chosen, who had got himself through the arduous business of getting fit enough to play the part, fell down two flights of stairs before opening night.

Marathon opens with a comic contrast, one partner pounding forward the other resentfully strolling along by his side, hands in pockets. In this way we are presented with the archetypal differences between the two: nature's pace-setter and the bringer-up of the rear.

Colin Teevon's extremely funny translation relishes the coarse badinage between the two and there are times when you feel (four-letter expletives and anatomical explicitness notwithstanding) that this pair echoes the binary paradigm of the TV sitcom The Likely Lads.

Punctuated by vaguely disturbing intimations of traffic flashing past, the play is all the stronger because it refuses to make an even progress into pure existential metaphor.

After resonant thematic statements, the talk will revert naturally to trivia and competitive bickering. So, for example, once the Kelleher character has argued that marathon running is a way of paying life back for being a nightmare, of "fucking it up the arse before it fucks you", the conversation lapses into a hilarious reminiscence of the night the same girl gave one of them a snog and the other a blow-job - except, to the consternation of McMenamin, it wasn't in that order.

I won't reveal the final phase, which shifts the whole play into a surprising new context, except to say I'm not sure if it pushes the metaphor to perfection or drives it to the point of self-evacuation. Mr Kelleher has done wonders to get (literally) up to speed. To save wear and tear on the poor chap, perhaps the Gate should alternate him with that former athlete, Lord Archer, who may have time on his hands.

To 11 Dec, (0171-229 5387)

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